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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Western examining classroom safety after faculty concerns

By Asia Fields

Some professors at Western have expressed concern with classroom safety for years, saying if there was an active shooter on campus, they would face a lack of options.

In some classrooms at Western, a single door is the only way in or out. And in most classrooms, there is no way to lock or barricade the doors. Professors have also been concerned with glass windows and inaccessible escape routes.

In response, Western has revitalized a committee focused on this issue, which is being overseen by University Police Chief Darin Rasmussen. The committee had met once or twice last year without coming to a recommendation, Rasmussen said.

But now, he said there is a sense of energy and urgency to find a solution that will work at Western following the shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Western students protest gun violence at the walkout held on March 14. // Photo by October Yates

The announcement that the committee would be reconvening came after The Western Front published a series of articles reporting that most classroom doors cannot be locked or barricaded, and that faculty, students and a security expert were concerned with Western’s security.

The committee had its first meeting on March 15 and will meet again on Thursday, April 12. It will be making recommendations to the vice president of business and financial affairs, said Paul Dunn, senior executive assistant to the university president.

Dunn said the university will be moving quickly to request more funds from the legislature in the 2019-2021 capital budget request. This was also shared at the committee meeting.

In 2016, the university proposed security upgrades that included installing electronic locks on all exterior doors of academic buildings. While the university asked the legislature for $7.2 million, it only received $1.5 million.

The money Western did receive will not go toward increasing lockdown abilities, Paul Cocke, Western’s director of communications and marketing, said earlier this month. Instead, it will be used to separate the fire alarm system from the current electronic access control system, which will become obsolete after 2019.

While waiting for funding, Cocke said there was discussion in the committee about prioritizing classrooms with limited options.

Professors from various departments, including David Sattler, a psychology professor who studies disaster preparedness, were at the first committee meeting. Also in attendance were Rasmussen, Dunn, Cocke, Associated Students Vice President for Student Life Annie Gordon and Ricardo Lopez, vice president of the faculty union.

Many of the professors invited to be on the committee had expressed concern to university officials prior to the committee’s revitalization.

The problem

Rasmussen said planning campus security upgrades is complicated, as Western has a variety of different classroom layouts.

Political science professor Rachel Paul, who is on the committee, said in the case of an emergency, she would feel responsible to help keep students safe, especially in classrooms where escape routes are inaccessible for students with disabilities.

“If I’m in a classroom where there is no hide option, I’d feel obligated to stay with a student who can’t run,” she said. “Why even bother to disseminate this plan that is run, hide, fight if that is not even an option?”

Political science professor Sara Weir, also on the committee, said there always seems to be money for special little projects on campus, and she wants to see safety prioritized for funding.

She said even if it takes a while to address all safety concerns, the university could identify and prioritize classrooms where options are extremely limited, like basement classrooms with no windows or ways to lock the doors, instead of waiting until all the funding needed comes in.

“Let’s make a path by walking,” she said.

“If I’m in a classroom where there is no hide option, I’d feel obligated to stay with a student who can’t run. Why even bother to disseminate this plan that is run, hide, fight if that is not even an option?”

Rachel Paul, political science assistant professor

Rasmussen said that while he does not feel Western’s campus is in particular danger of a violent attack, he does want to take advantage of the timing, as people are thinking about this now.

“Regardless of if there’s funds or money, we need to look at where our vulnerabilities are. That is something that we can start to do fairly soon, and we can look at how best to attack that,”  Rasmussen said. “Some of that probably is going to involve funding, some of that may not.”

However, he thinks the process may take some time.

“We have a very large and diverse campus with a very strong culture of openness and accessibility,” Rasmussen said. “Anytime you start trying to address these things, people want to be consulted, they want to be involved, so things take time to get rolling.”

What did the committee discuss?

The Western Front was denied access to the meeting, as the committee is a non-acting body and not subject to the Open Meetings Act, Western’s Assistant Attorney General Rob Olson said.

Bodies not subject to the act can choose to make their meetings open to the public, including the media. The Front contacted President Sabah Randhawa and Dunn, who said this meeting would not be open, but that future meetings might be.

Weir and Paul said they felt encouraged by the first committee meeting. They said Rasmussen seemed supportive of making changes.

In the meeting, Paul said she called for more options, which she said Rasmussen was receptive to, as he said there is no perfect solution.

Weir said there is not consensus on the committee yet about what should be done, but that the committee agreed there needs to be more security options in classrooms.

Director of Facilities Management John Furman indicated he will be bringing three possible plans to the next committee meeting, Paul said.

The committee will continue discussing options and will also be looking into what other colleges are doing, Paul said.

Previous concerns

Two years ago, Paul asked the university for keys so she could lock her classroom in the basement of the Communication Facility if there was an emergency.

Many doors on campus like this one in Academic West do not lock from the inside and open outwards. // Photo by Taylor Nichols

She thought that if something happened, she would want to be able to lock the door from the outside to lock herself and her students in the classroom. The room had no other exits.

Her request was turned down. She was told that locks on doors increase the chances of assault on campus. In an interview with the Front, Dunn said assault could be an unintended consequence, as people could keep law enforcement out.

However, Ed Jaramillo, vice president for administrative services at Skagit Valley College, said the college hasn’t seen this as a result of installing locks on classroom doors. Skagit has internal locks on almost all of their doors, except for main restroom doors, he said. The locked doors can be unlocked with keys.

Two decades ago, when Paul was teaching at the University of Illinois, she received a death threat from someone who had been pretending to be a student and had been behaving erratically in her classes.

She was evacuated from her classroom and locked in an office for her safety. She was later told he also threatened another professor.

She said she felt the University of Illinois took the matter seriously. They moved her office, placed a plainclothes officer in her classroom and had someone walk her to and from her car, she said.

Now, Paul always looks for exits when she walks into a classroom, she said. When she didn’t see many options in her classroom two years ago, she was concerned.

She said she appreciated that after she contacted him, Rasmussen came to her classroom to discuss her options.

She said Rasmussen and another officer agreed that the classroom was problematic, and even pointed out other problems she had not even thought about. But her request for a key was denied.

While she said Western’s response then wasn’t good, she is encouraged by what seems to be movement toward action now.

“I feel like there’s some urgency,” Paul said.

Other colleges

Paul said other colleges are struggling to weigh the risks and decide what they are willing to sacrifice for safety. Rasmussen also said this to the Front and said Western will be looking at what other campuses are doing.

Skagit Vice President Ed Jaramillo agreed universities are struggling with how to best secure campuses, especially in older buildings.

“I’ve been around education for many, many years and this is a whole new thing at universities,” he said.

Data from Everytown for Gun Safety obtained on March 6. School shootings include any gunfire on school property, not just those that result in injury or death. The two cases in Washington, at New Start High School in Seattle and Oakland High School in Tacoma, where both guns fired without injury. // Infographic by Monique Merrill

Jaramillo said that Skagit installed locks on doors to best allow for the options from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI to “run, hide, fight.”

He also said the college can lock all external doors with a push of a button, something Western has included in former security upgrade proposals.

A security expert told the Front that remotely controlled exterior locks were not enough as a security measure, as it does not protect people already inside a building.

Jaramillo said while the exterior locks may not prevent a shooter from getting into another building, it would at least make it harder, and that interior locks give people the option to hide.

These security measures were put into place around the time he started at Skagit around two years ago, Jaramillo said.

In planning the security upgrades, Jaramillo said Skagit consulted FBI and DHS recommendations and resources, Readiness and Emergency Preparedness for Schools, and then outside security experts and consultants.

“This is something we were not experts at,” he said, adding that experts were able to weigh in on what kinds of security measures and locks would be best.

He said the school installed a variety of locks depending on door types.

When asked if Western’s committee will be hearing from experts on security, Cocke said committee member David Sattler is an expert in emergency communication.

Cocke said he was not sure if Sattler had experience with studying active shooter situations specifically, but that he did have a study on emergency response.

Rasmussen and Cocke said there is a wide variety of opinions on what the best practices are for campus security.

“Nothing we do is going to protect everyone all the time,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said he is open to talking to experts if it seems like it would benefit their planning, and that the university has already talked to Virginia Tech.

Is Western’s training effective?

When Paul expressed her concern about safety in 2015, she was invited to be part of an experimental lockdown drill, she said. She was unable to participate, but heard from a student who did that their professor was frustrated, as they did not know what to do.

Paul said she understands trainings are difficult to plan, as professors’ schedules vary.

She also said she has a sense that some instructors on campus feel they are not responsible for being prepared for emergencies, or that trainings should be in their contract.

While Paul said she supports general training, she said installing options such as door locks wouldn’t even require it.

She said students are brought up looking to teachers for help in the case of an emergency.

“The doors don’t lock. If I were in a high school or a community college or an elementary school, the teachers would have the ability to lock the doors,” she said.

In the fall, there was a voluntary campus-wide active shooter drill for the first time, Rasmussen said. In addition, University Police train with city and county law enforcement on active shooter drills, Rasmussen said.

However, students and professors have said the lockdown did not help prepare them, and that they felt they were not informed of their options.

Cocke said there is a quarterly Western Alert drill, and that the Communications Office provides information through online videos and Western Today for the drill.

The university’s focus on mental health

When she expressed her concern two years ago, Paul was also told that the university administration’s preference was to look at the security issue from a mental health perspective.

Paul said that while she appreciates that as part of a solution, she is concerned about having to continue teaching in classrooms with limited options in case of an emergency.

In many cases of a shooting, at least one person knew of the plan before it happened, Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said the university provides training on behaviors of concern that is optional for staff and faculty, but that he is not sure what outreach students get. He said some departments have been asking for the voluntary training, but that faculty and staff are busy.

Cocke said there has been improvement at Western when it comes to crisis prevention. He said there is professional support for people exhibiting concerning behavior, such as the Student Health Center and Counseling Center.

The Front has reported on the Counseling Center facing high demand and understaffing, resulting in long waits for appointments. However, the Center provides after-hours emergency services for current students and is a part of Western’s care and concern team.

Rasmussen said Western’s care and concern team meets weekly, and is made up of the Office of Student Life, Counseling Center, Student Health Center, Prevention and Wellness Services, Residence Life, Registrar’s Office, Equal Opportunity Office, DisAbility Resources for Students and often, University Police.

In these meetings, representatives from these offices discuss students they are concerned about (within the bounds of their professional limits due to confidentiality) and decide who should reach out to them and how, Cocke and Rasmussen said.

“[The committee looks at] what’s the best plan to go forward to make sure that person’s successful now,” Rasmussen said. “Or maybe they need a break from school and can come back when they are going to be successful.”

Cocke said these care committees are not unique to Western and that they sprung up nationally after Virginia Tech.

Colleges have been criticized for putting students who are a direct threat only to themselves on leave, with some saying this is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Experts say national policy on this topic is unclear.

Rasmussen said Western has been successful at identifying and reaching out to students who may be a threat to themselves or others. Western advises reporting students who may harm themselves or others to University Police directly.

Faculty Senate President Allison Giffen said that when Rasmussen came to their last meeting to discuss campus safety, faculty instead mostly expressed concern with students who posed a threat to themselves.

She said this is always a concern for faculty winter quarter, and that faculty are reluctant to report to University Police, as they do not want to criminalize mental illness. She said Rasmussen explained that University Police works with the different offices on campus, so if they are called, they will confer with resources like the Counseling Center.

Concerns with university’s transparency

Weir said she expressed her concern with a lack of transparency at the end of the first committee meeting. She said she’s always felt that students should be more involved in decisions, and told administrators she thought the Front should be at the meeting.

She said Rasmussen said he believes strongly in transparency.

Weir mentioned having the editor-in-chief of the paper there specifically. Cocke said he told the committee that since winter quarter was almost over, and since the top editor changes each quarter, it would be a different person spring quarter. Weir interpreted this as him giving a reason not to have the Front at the meetings.

“They don’t want to have someone cherry-pick what was said and what wasn’t said at the meeting. They should just be at the meeting.”

Sara Weir, political science professor

However, Weir disagreed and argued for more student involvement.

“They don’t want to have someone cherry-pick what was said and what wasn’t said at the meeting. They should just be at the meeting,” she told the Front she said.

Paul agreed that there should be some increased transparency.

“I think they need to be transparent to students and to parents,” Paul said. “But there’s also this element that maybe we all shouldn’t know everything [about a security plan].”

Dunn said there would be more discussion about whether future meetings should be open, and that once the committee has something, they will report it out. He said the committee is likely to reach a recommendation quickly.

 

Updated Monday, March 26, as Paul Cocke, Western’s director of communications and marketing, said he did not say the Front did not need to be at the meeting because he communicates with the paper, which a professor at the meeting told the Front he said. Updated to reflect what Cocke said he told the committee.

Updated Tuesday, March 27, as Cocke clarified that he did not mean that if a representative from the Front should be at the meetings, it should be an editor-in-chief, but that he was responding to a specific call for the editor-in-chief at the time to be there. Meeting date also updated, as it was pushed back.

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