Gun violence happens, colleges must be ready

Police keep watch at Sacramento City College after student Roman Gonzalez, 25, was shot to death. Administrators put the campus on lockdown for a few hours after the shooting on Sept. 3.
Police keep watch at Sacramento City College after student Roman Gonzalez, 25, was shot to death. Administrators put the campus on lockdown for a few hours after the shooting on Sept. 3. rbyer@sacbee.com

There’s nothing organized about a shooting on a college campus. Nothing neat about the frantic 911 calls, or normal about police officers responding in droves to what’s supposed to be a safe space for learning. Nothing orderly about the students trying to figure out what’s going on and running away.

This is the nature of such emergencies. They’re chaotic.

Still, with on-campus shootings a grim and inevitable reality, institutions of higher learning have both a moral and legal responsibility to prepare for and then manage the chaos. Schools must make sure students and faculty are kept in the loop, and know what to do to protect themselves.

So we are troubled by what happened after student Roman Gonzalez, 25, was shot to death at Sacramento City College last week, his killer on the loose, at least for a few moments, on campus. A former student, Charlie Hola, 19, also was stabbed in the fight that started in a parking lot.

Despite the college’s – indeed the Los Rios Community College District’s – procedures for handling such emergencies, communication with students and faculty was spotty and slow.

Faculty and staff didn’t find out about the shooting until 15 to 20 minutes after it happened – and they found out via email.

The shooting happened at 3:56 p.m. Faculty and staff were the first to find out about it – 15 to 20 minutes later via email. That was enough time for police to verify that a shooting had indeed happened, for the Sac City police chief, the Los Rios police chief and the vice president of administration to be notified, and then the decision made to manually lock down the campus.

But students didn’t find out about the shooting for another 20 minutes – at 4:41 p.m. via text message.

The decision was made to delay notifying students so police could finish closing the campus and avoid causing panic, said Sac City spokesman Rick Brewer. A technical “glitch” also complicated matters.

Brewer said he called the company that handles text messages for the college, quickly dictated – yes, dictated – what he wanted to send, and then had to wait another five minutes for the message to actually make it to students’ phones. But only students who had opted-in to the service were alerted.

Meanwhile, there was chaos.

At a town hall meeting Thursday, one student told administrators that she was moved to the top floor of a building and wasn’t told why. Another recounted how she and others were blocked from leaving campus on the train, but had no idea there was a shooting. Many others said they didn’t know where to go.

All of this underscores the worrisome fact that although shootings and stabbings happen on campuses with alarming frequency, not every college is fully prepared to handle them.

Certainly in the years following the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, colleges took a hard look at how they handled emergencies. Most revamped procedures and added campuswide alerts via text, email, phone and social media.

But even today, the legal requirements under the Jeanne Clery Act are rather loose, so every institution does things a little differently. Some plans are effective; others, not so much.

To his credit, Chancellor Brian King has vowed to use what happened at Sac City as a learning experience for the entire Los Rios district. It’s the right move. Colleges can’t stop every armed student determined to cause chaos, but colleges can certainly prepare for them.