April 25, 2007

C.U. Officials Discuss Response to Va. Tech

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This article appears in the 2007 edition of The Sun’s annual Freshman Issue as “Cornell Plans Safety Upgrade After Va. Tech.”

“Half of college students report having felt extremely depressed,” said Ray Kim, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to a crowd of students in Goldwin Smith’s Hollis E. Cornell auditorium yesterday afternoon. “60 percent of students report feeling absolutely hopeless at times. 10 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide. How many people knew it was this bad?”
No one raised their hands.
Kim was one of four speakers on a panel yesterday afternoon to speak about the Virginia Tech tragedy and Cornell’s level of preparedness for such emergencies. Hosted by Omega Phi Beta Sorority and Lambda Phi Epsilon, the goal of the discussion was to bring the past week’s events home to our campus.
Other speakers included George Sutfin, head of crime prevention at Cornell Police, Chief Curtis Ostrander who has worked for CUPD since before the 1983 shooting at Cornell, and Dr. Ya-Shu Liang, who works for Counseling and Psychological Services.
“Every time something happens [response and prevention] plans are reevaluated,” Sutfin said.
“Columbine got everyone reevaluating response,” added Ostrander. “New training was developed. I was one of the first officers who received training.”
Sutfin told the audience that Cornell is now in the process of making a contract with a company that alerts everyone on campus of emergencies by text message.
“If something happens at an elementary school, it’s easy to shut down, but Cornell is a small city, and it’s very hard to shut down the entire campus. Studies show that 90 percent of students have cell phones, so [the new plan will] send texts to everyone in a circumference.”
Though the officers were unable not comment on their current response plans to the specific type of emergency that happened at Virginia Tech, Sutfin said that CUPD senior staff sat in on meetings to discuss changes to the plans while the panel was going on.
He added that a lot of prevention rests in the hands of students. According to Sutfin, many students let unknown people into their dormitories, putting everyone at risk. He cited an incident when, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he was able to get into a dorm, go into an unlocked room and “steal” a computer, without ever being asked who he was.
Kim said that there is added pressure in a university setting, which often drives people to need help. He said that University policy forbids the administration from telling parents when their students show signs of problems unless the student provides consent, and Gannett and Cayuga Medical cannot tell the administration when students need help. This means that a lot of responsibility for reaching out to those in trouble rests in the hands of students.
Liu spoke about the infrastructure that Gannett has implemented to help at-risk students through CAPS.
“If students are in danger to themselves or others, we may break confidentiality,” Liu said. “If someone called the hotline and said that they were going to kill people, we would force them into the hospital.”
She added that students have also used CAPS to help them cope with the Virginia Tech tragedy.
This panel was the only community forum organized by students, according to Antonia de Jesus ’09 of Omega Phi Beta, who helped arrange the event.
“I got a call from my mother crying the day it happened,” said de Jesus. “She had seen the pictures of all students. I looked it up on the internet, and I thought that something had to be done, so we put it all together.”
Tiffany Brutus ’07, president of Omega Phi Beta, was concerned because Cornell students had not done more in response to the tragedy.
“It’s a big reflection on our generation. People care about it in the now, but not a couple days later. If you don’t go to Virginia Tech, people forget about it.”