Quick action helped UCF avert gun massacre. But it was close. (+video)
A 911 call by the gunman's roommate and the quick response of UCF campus police are credited with helping avert a massacre. But troubled students need to be identified far earlier, experts say.
Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP
Details are still emerging about the suicide and apparent massacre plot of James Oliver Seevakumaran, a student at the University of Central Florida.
But it's clear that the situation could have been far worse.
Mr. Seevakumaran never carried out the plan found detailed in his room thanks in part, apparently, to his roommate's 911 call and the quick response of campus police early Monday. Instead, he turned his gun on himself. Police found a handgun, an assault weapon, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, improvised explosive devices, and plans that apparently involved getting students out into hallways via a fire alarm – which was set off – and then opening fire on them.
“It could have been a very bad day for everybody here,” UCF Police Chief Richard Beary said in a statement Tuesday. “All things considered, I think we were very blessed here at the University of Central Florida."
The near miss, however, still crystallizes many colleges' worst fear – a Virginia Tech-type shooting rampage. The incident is sparking debates about weapons on campus, safety procedures, and prevention tactics.
In the years since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, in which 32 students were killed and 17 wounded before the shooter killed himself, many campuses have focused heavily on emergency procedures, drills, and preventative intervention strategies. Some of that focus – like the quick communication and electronic alerts that students received to keep them informed about the situation – was on display at UCF.
But the most effective ways that institutions of higher education have found to prevent mass shootings may be in more targeted early interventions, say experts.
"The good news is the roommate called, and the police responded quickly, and luck went in the right direction, but it could very easily have gone the other way," says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. "The question most of us have when incidents like this come to light is, could it have been caught earlier?"
One of the most prominent trends since the Virginia Tech shooting has been the development of threat-assessment and behavior-intervention teams, says Alison Kiss, executive director of The Clery Center for Security on Campus. Such teams typically bring multiple agencies and constituencies on a campus together to share information and discuss red flags, and whether an intervention might be needed for certain students. Virginia Tech, she notes, has been a leader in the field.
"Higher education brings a lot of resources to the table, but there are a lot of silos that exist," says Ms. Kiss, noting that when information is shared effectively, it can help institutions be aware of threats and avert dangerous situations, as well as simply get help to students who may need it.
In addition, she says, federal law now requires colleges and universities to not only have emergency protocols in place, but to test them annually.
While incidents like the one at UCF – particularly in the context of other recent shootings – can lead to talk of an epidemic, it's also important to keep the threat level in perspective, says Jack Levin, a criminology professor at Northeastern University who has done research on mass killers.
"The college campus is still the safest location in our society," says Professor Levin, noting that there are fewer acts of violence – and fewer rampage shootings – there than anywhere else.
Still, he says, it's very possible that heightened discussion of these incidents can spark copycats – one reason there is sometimes a string of similar shootings, as with the school shootings in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as students took inspiration from others and sought notoriety.
And, like Kiss and Mr. Trump, Levin notes that early interventions usually offer the best chance for preventing a shooting from taking place.
"There are warning signs, but the problem is that we wait until a student is troublesome, we wait until he wants to kill, before we intervene, and then it’s too late," says Levin. "We should be intervening early on, when a student is not yet dangerous, not troublesome but troubled."
Many rampage shooters who are adults share similar characteristics, says Levin – often they're struggling in school, have few social supports, are depressed, tend to externalize responsibility for their problems, and may be threatened with expulsion or eviction. (Little is known about Seevakumaran, but he was in the process of being evicted from his dorm, and was no longer taking classes this semester.)
Of course, notes Levin, many nonviolent students who would never become threats also share these characteristics – it can be almost impossible to pick out the tiny percentage who might become truly dangerous to themselves or others.
So, he says, "we can’t wait until somebody wants to commit murder. Instead we should intervene because they need our help."
College campuses, where students have a lot of freedom and mobility and which typically occupy large swaths of land and many buildings, have different challenges in terms of physical security than do elementary and high schools, says Trump. But best practices still involve plans that look at both physical security and immediate response – lockdown procedures, police response, communications – as well as training and measures to catch early warning signs and treat mental-health issues.
And beyond the basic improvements to training, security, and emergency communications that schools are starting to take on, Trump says that many still need both a shift in culture toward taking more proactive measures when a student seems to be in crisis as well as the will to make any security improvements sustainable over the long term.
"The good news is we’re getting better at preventing these [shootings]," says Trump. "The bad news is that there are always some that slip through the cracks."