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Virginia Tech shootings have left lasting impression on Florida colleges

TAMPA — Four years ago today, a gunman waged war on a university campus, leaving 33 dead and much forever changed.

The massacre at Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007, revolutionized the way colleges approach student safety. It birthed mass alert systems and sweeping surveillance. It amped up counseling services and pushed administrators into the world of social media.

In many ways, school became safer.

But at the same time, a heightened sense of awareness emerged. Not exactly fear, but an uncomfortable acceptance that, yes, even here, it could happen.

• • •

After the Virginia Tech shootings, all Florida universities created or expanded their emergency notification systems. Now, any time there is a credible threat on campus — whether it be a suspicious person report or bad weather — officials send out warnings.

They can come by text message, e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. Depending on severity, the warnings might overtake class computers or blare over loudspeakers.

That reaction is standard for Florida's public universities after recommendations in 2008 from the state Board of Governors that called for the investment of $16 million into emergency systems.

According to the board's March count, many improvements remain unfunded. Still, the measures that are in place are getting plenty of use.

In the past few years, USF has sent out several mass alerts. One warned of a knife-wielding man with a puppy, another of a man with a pistol in the Greek Village area, and yet another of a suicidal man who said he had a gun.

None came to violence.

"I feel safe most of the time, but I've grown more wary about who's around me," said USF senior Mallory Edwards, 21. "Especially when the texts go out. That just kind of opens my eyes."

It's the same story at the University of Florida. Last year, officials used the mass text system after a man said he was robbed in a pedestrian tunnel. Authorities later found the report to be false.

Last month, a player in a campus game of manhunt was seen with a plastic gun, prompting police to screech to the scene within minutes, UF spokesman Steve Orlando said. No text was sent in that case.

Florida State University offers a smart phone app that gives students crime alerts, in addition to mass notifications.

"Awareness, awareness, awareness. Expectations of that from parents and students have increased tenfold," FSU police Chief David Perry said.

Several schools use a video called Shots Fired on Campus: When Lightning Strikes to teach students, faculty and staff what to do in a worst-case scenario. The video is screened during employee trainings, classes or whenever it's requested.

"It's a constant thought," USF St. Petersburg police Lt. Reggie Oliver said.

• • •

Nowhere is that truer than in Blacksburg, Va.

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker, who was all over the news that day four years ago, said the school's current response protocol is similar to those in Florida.

There are mass notification systems, threat assessments, heavy expectations — products of an unthinkable learning experience.

Last month, Virginia Tech was fined $55,000 by the U.S. Education Department for waiting too long to notify students after English major Seung-Hui Cho started shooting in 2007. The school said it plans to appeal.

But Hincker talked about a different lasting impression: the "Hokie Spirit."

People came together in the aftermath, he said. They flooded memorial funds with donations and reached out to people in need of counseling.

The year after the shootings, enrollment at the university went up, Hincker said. All of the 26 students injured graduated.

"I think that's a remarkable success story," he said.

Tonight, as on the three previous anniversaries, Virginia Tech students will gather on campus and light candles to remember a day many would like to forget.

• • •

In Florida, students may not realize the date's significance. But aftereffects remain.

"With all the safety in the world, it's still possible someone will slip through the cracks," said USF sophomore Karim Al-Turk, 20. "I still believe I'm safe, but it could be a possibility."

"The thought's still there," said 21-year-old Lindsay Walroth, a junior at USF.

Ben Agger understands those feelings.

A sociology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, Agger co-wrote a book on the cultural impact of the Virginia Tech shootings, called There Is a Gunman on Campus: Tragedy and Terror at Virginia Tech.

On that day, a long-held sense of safety on campuses was shattered, Agger told the St. Petersburg Times.

"Something kind of foundational changed in American academic life," Agger said. "We realized that colleges and universities are beset with the same kind of human and social problems we find outside."

Along with the notification and alarm systems came a renewed effort to care for troubled students, Agger said.

Indeed, after the shootings, Florida universities also worked to improve counseling services.

USF and the University of Tampa both have programs aimed at identifying and helping "students of concern." Anyone can anonymously report students that seem to be in trouble.

"Prior to Virginia Tech, students always defaulted to 'My campus is safe.' I think Virginia Tech shattered that impression to a point," UT associate dean of students Monnie Wertz said. "I think students now operate under a new normal: 'My campus is safe, but.' "

It's clear, Agger said, that the barrier between campus and the real world is permeable — maybe nonexistent.

"We realized that going to college can be dangerous, which is another way of saying being out in public can be dangerous" he said. "The bubble burst."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Virginia Tech shootings have left lasting impression on Florida colleges 04/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 15, 2011 11:12pm]

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