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Campus crusaders: risk managers are re-evaluating and, in some cases, updating emergency preparedness plans in the wake of recent school shootings.

The deadly April shooting at Virginia Tech in which 32 students and faculty members were killed brought back chilling memories for University of Arizona Director of Risk Management and Safety Steve Holland.

Five years earlier, a failing student shot and killed three nursing professors at the university, opening fire on two of them in front of a class of exam-takers. The gunman then ordered students out of the room and killed himself.

Holland and his nationwide peers are facing greater challenges than ever before. Not only are they still purchasing insurance and monitoring student accident reports, they're also dealing with the growing incidence of national school violence.

Risk Management at Work

"There isn't a university risk manager out there today who isn't asking themselves how they would have responded in a situation such as Virginia Tech," said Steve Kenny, director of risk management services for the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

That's led risk managers to reexamine existing policies, security systems and emergency preparedness.

"A lot of emergency planning on campuses started in earnest following Sept. 11," said Holland. "The themes just switched over the years. First we were concerned about terrorism, then about natural disasters following Hurricane Katrina, and now the focus is on violent incidents."

Lou Drapeau, director of risk management for the University of Kentucky, said not only are risk managers examining if "we've thought of everything that could go wrong, but we're also reading everything we can about the recent situation. We're looking at this in a realistic manner."

While hindsight is 20/20, Drapeau said he wouldn't have handled the Virginia Tech situation any differently from his Virginia peers. "There were people screaming that the university should have immediately locked down the school once the first two homicides were discovered. But at that point the identity of the shooter was unknown, and had the campus been locked down at the wrong moment, the shooter would have been locked in his dorm, and a different subset of the population might have become victims," he said.

"Those are the kinds of things you need to take into consideration in your planning process," Drapeau said. "That takes you back to 'if this happens, then do this.' But you can't get to the 'do this' part until you know exactly what happened.

"We still need human intelligence at the scene to make decisions" he added.

Institutions of higher education aren't the only ones on alert. Houston Independent School District in Texas began re-examining its procedures following last year's shooting of 10 Amish students in Pennsylvania. Five of the students were killed. "We added in procedures, specifically for lock-down situations for both internal and external threats," said risk manager Brad Bailey.

Congress also is acting. One recent proposal by lawmakers would make campuses eligible for additional federal grant money, while another would change mental health laws to make it easier to identify people who pose a threat of violence.

Team Effort

Along with student, faculty and staff training on safety and disaster preparedness, schools also are working closely with local and state law enforcement.

Key Points

* Risk managers at colleges and other schools are busier than ever ensuring their campuses have effective emergency plans in the wake of recent school shootings.

* A three-pronged approach to ensuring school safety includes prevention, response and communication.

* Several colleges and universities are looking at specialized communication systems to alert students and staff in an emergency.

Houston ISD has a special response unit that trains with area SWAT teams, along with a 170-member police department in what it says is the only accredited school district police force in the United States.

Charles Wiley, police chief for the district, said since the Virginia Tech incident it's revisited some response strategies and "reinforced the notion of what Columbine taught us--don't necessarily wait and gather resources; rather, intervention sooner than later is better where lives may be lost."

The recent tragedy also illustrates a transformation within the environment that emergency management professionals focus on daily, said Bob Williamson, risk management and safety officer for The Citadel--The Military College of South Carolina. "Over the past decade, we've witnessed the occurrence of several events that not long ago were considered ridiculously improbable by even the most cynical in our industry."

He said historically, risk managers have gained a significant decision-making advantage by interpreting statistical data and case studies compiled over many years. "These lessons learned through past experience have become indispensable as a tool for use in planning and preparedness efforts. But now we're often faced with managing exposure to threats that present challenges that must be addressed without the benefit of past experience.

"Where we once felt comfortable with planning that was focused more individually on specific incidents, we now look at various categories of threats, and we plan responses somewhat more generic in terms of specifics but much more comprehensive overall," said Williamson.

In order for an organization's safety program to realize true success, he said, it must be supported from the top down and be all-inclusive. "Many organizations that had some success in the past by relying primarily on specialists to carry the bulk of the responsibilities associated with their safety programs have now realized a need to move away from specialization. Instead, [they are] concentrating more on ensuring that each member of the organization understands his or her individual role and responsibilities, and developing a commitment from each to the program's goals and values," he said.

On Alert

University of North Carolina's Kenny said it's not the growing violence that keeps him awake at night. "But rather how we respond to a particular risk and how responsible we are to responding to that is front of mind. The risks I'm most concerned about are those that devastate your reputation. You can have a very small event on a campus, but if you don't handle it properly, the focus shifts to your handling. And often, there's greater reputational risk attached to how responsibly you prepared for and handled that event than the event itself."

Schools also are paying closer attention to potential warning signs. The University of Arizona recently developed a behavioral assessment team in which key stakeholders on campus, such as student officers and police officials, counsel troubled individuals. "All people who might have the opportunity to touch one corner of a problem can be scrambled together quickly if a situation arises. That connects the dots, and there's opportunity to work with individuals to see if they're a danger to themselves or others, or if disciplinary action needs to be taken," said Holland.

Other student supervisors also are being trained. The University of Kentucky devotes part of its resident assistant training at the beginning of each semester to risk management and emergency preparedness, said Drapeau.

Linda Rice, director of risk management for Clemson University, said risk managers need to take a three-step approach: prevention, response and communication.

Increased awareness also is critical to success, said The Citadel's Williamson. "Accordingly, we have expanded the safety and security-related components of our orientation and indoctrination programs and have charged various campus groups and activities with helping us ensure that safety is incorporated right from the start when planning any event or activity."

Potential Targets

"Campuses used to be open, inviting and relatively safe places," said University of Kentucky's Drapeau, "but we now live in a dangerous world, and campuses have gotten more dangerous."

Many campuses essentially operate as small towns, generating their own power and employing their own police, fire and emergency personnel. "There are many different areas on campus that have responsibilities when it comes to safety and risk management, and my job is make sure all those areas understand their roles and how they mesh with everyone else's roles so there's a more harmonious approach to risk management," Kenny said.

Following the Virginia Tech incident, there were complaints that students did not receive e-mails warning of a gunman on campus until more than two hours after the first shots were fired. Schools now are evaluating communication methods that could assist in such situations.

Drapeau said the University of Kentucky is looking at an e-mail communication system, but "it gets tricky coming up with a plan that could notify 35,000 students, along with staff, faculty and visitors." Even if you could notify most of them, he said, "there still may be others wandering around campus unaware of what's going on and perhaps remain in harm's way. It'll take some real thought for someone to come up with a comprehensive plan that will take care of things."

Just days before the Virginia Tech shootings, Princeton University purchased a notification system--Connect-ED service--that allows campus leaders to send simultaneous alerts to individuals in minutes through landline phones, cellular phones, text messaging and e-mail. The system augments the communication tools the university already had in place to respond to various crises.

The University of North Carolina is looking at a reverse 911 system where messages could immediately be pushed to individuals' cell phones. It's also piloting the Rave Guardian program, which uses a global positioning system to notify police of students' locations when needed.

Many schools also rely on on-campus radio and local TV stations to broadcast alerts. Clemson University recently installed a severe weather communication system, which the university plans to use for other emergencies, Rice said.

"One of the greatest lessons learned after the Virginia Tech tragedy is that campuses need the ability to reach students quickly and effectively in an emergency," said Princeton University spokesperson Cass Cliatt. "They also need to have an emergency preparedness plan in place, but what's even more important is making sure everyone knows what that plan is, because any plan is only as effective as the knowledge that exists about it."

Lessons Learned

Kenny said another lesson learned is that risk managers have to keep the situation in context. "What happened was a very rare event, and overall, college campuses are very safe places. It's important to look at these situations, debrief and make sure your plans are appropriate, but also keep in mind that there are still many other risks out there that deserve our attention as well," he said.

"We can be as responsible as possible." Kenny added, "but there are still some risks that simply can't be eliminated."

Holland agreed. "There's no perfect system. To say that we know when and if something will happen and prevent it is just naive, but there are warning signs we must be aware of."

He said if schools or universities weren't already thinking about emergency planning following Sept. 11 and Katrina, they are now. "I can't imagine there's an administrator who's not sitting there thanking their lucky stars this wasn't on their campus but knowing that it could have been," Holland said.

"In all the places I've worked in law enforcement over the past 38 years, I never laid awake at night concerned about what might happen as much as I do now, because schools are a very large and easy target," said Houston ISD's Wiley. "We're vulnerable, and I don't think there is much more we can do to minimize or diminish that vulnerability except to prepare, prepare and prepare. And that's what we're continuing to do."

RELATED ARTICLE: School shooting: negligence is central issue.

Potential liability claims arising from the massacre fat Virginia Tech will hinge on whether or not school authorities were negligent in responding to the April 16 campus shooting or had adequate emergency management plans in place to prevent it, risk and insurance experts said.

The deadliest shooting in U.S. history will very likely change the way university risk managers operate. Unlike the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, experts said, it is unlikely the event will have an immediate impact on the university insurance market, although some fear copycat events could have an impact.

Since the murderous rampage, questions have been raised over whether police and school officials at Virginia Tech did everything they could to warn students and prevent the shootings, because the second shooting occurred roughly two and a half hours after the first incident across campus. Altogether, the gunman killed 32 people and injured many before taking his own life.

Robb Jones, a senior vice president and general counsel at United Educators, a reciprocal risk-retention group that insures more than 1,200 colleges, universities and schools, said before deciding the negligence question, courts would ask whether the institution had a duty to prevent the massacre from happening.

"Not all courts or all states would say there was," said Jones, a former administrative assistant for the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "Some would still say the murders were a supervening act or that any kind of inadequacy on the part of the university was not the cause of the particular tragedy."

Jones said courts and society have long struggled with the issue. "We know who killed all these students. It's a tragedy, and you can do nothing but empathize with the families affected. But is it something that should be compensated by the university, which is itself one of the victims of the whole event?"

In the 20 years of its existence, United Educators has received many claims associated with campus violence and school shootings--usually resulting in single or double murders--but nothing that reaches the scope and magnitude of the Virginia Tech incident, Jones said.

If claims are filed, Virginia Tech's general liability coverages could be tested. Like most state universities, the coverage is offered through a state self-insured plan, which would respond to any claims made against the institution, officers or employees. The policy has $2 million per occurrence limit, and also provides defense handled by the state's attorney general. Coverage for professional liability concerns are covered under this policy as well, according to the university.

The university potentially could raise the sovereign immunity defense, which protects employees of the Commonwealth of Virginia, including the campus police from being sued, said Jones. "I don't know what kind of arrangements Virginia Tech has, but schools in a state university systems tend to rely on whatever sovereign immunities that may exist."

If sovereign immunity is raised, the court would likely do a case-by-case analysis, said Jones. "They tend to ask whether the acts were in the scope of the employment, were they grossly negligent or wanton in some way, or were they discretionary judgment calls, which are usually regarded as subject to sovereign immunity. Sometimes, a ministerial act isn't."

--David Dankwa

School Violence Over the Years

March 1996--Sixteen children and one teacher are killed at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland. The shooter then kills himself.

October 1997--Two students are killed and seven wounded in Pearl, Miss., by Luke Woodham, who also is accused of killing his mother.

December 1997--Three students are killed and five wounded during a prayer circle at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky.

May 1998--Two students are killed and 22 wounded in the cafeteria at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., by a 15-year-old student who is later found dead at home.

April 1999--Twelve students and one teacher are killed and 23 wounded at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

May 1999--Six students are injured at Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga., by a 15-year-old reportedly depressed after breaking up with his girlfriend.

March 2001--Charles Andrew Williams kills two students and wounds nearly a dozen when firing from a bathroom at Santana High School in in Santee, Calif.

April 2002--Thirteen teachers, two students and one policeman are killed and several others wounded by Robert Steinhaeuser at the Johann Gutenberg secondary school in Erfurt, Germany.

March 2005--Jeff Weise kills his grandfather and his grandfather's companion and then arrives at school in Red Lake, Minn., where he kills a teacher, a security guard, five students and himself.

September 2006--A 25-year-old opens fire at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. One student dies, and more than a dozen students and faculty are wounded.

October 2006--Ten schoolgirls of the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania are shot. Five of the girls and the shooter die.

April 2007--Thirty-two students and faculty are killed and others wounded at Virginia Tech in the nation's deadliest school shooting.
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Title Annotation:Property/Casualty: Risk Management
Author:Chordas, Lori
Publication:Best's Review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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