Some schools take new tack on threats

Hundreds of colleges have purchased a training program that teaches professors and students not to take campus threats lying down but to fight back with any “improvised weapon,” such as a backpack or a laptop computer.

The program — which includes a video showing a gunman opening fire in a packed classroom — urges them to be ready to respond to a shooter by taking advantage of the inherent strength in numbers.

It reflects a new response at colleges and universities where memories of the campus shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University are still fresh.

At UNC Chapel Hill, officials are looking for ways to incorporate the training as part of the school's “Alert Carolina” program. Campus police Chief Jeff McCracken said the school may offer hands-on training to students and faculty, or simply post a link on the university Web site.

Despite the relative rarity of deadly violence on campus, colleges can no longer assume that they are immune from such problems, McCracken said.

“I do think it's important that we talk to our folks and give them some guidance on how to protect themselves and others,” he said. “It's not something that 10 years ago we thought we'd be talking about. But unfortunately, it's something we need to do now.”

Domenick Brouillette, who administered the course at Metropolitan Community College, which serves more than 20,000 students, said students and professors need to look at their environment “through the lens of survival.”

“Survivors prepare themselves both mentally and emotionally to do what it takes,” he said. “It might involve life-threatening risk. You may do something you never thought you were capable of doing.”

Nearly 300 professors at Metropolitan Community College were shown the video as part of a training exercise before the first day of classes on this downtown campus. The training, produced by the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, a for-profit firm based in Spokane, Wash., is also available for the school's students.

The training drills teachers and students in a “survival mindset,” said Randy Spivey, a former U.S. Department of Defense hostage negotiator who is executive director of the center. The center's roster includes retired FBI agents and others with federal law enforcement experience.

“There are two extremes. On the one hand is paranoia, and on the other is oblivion,” he said. “We're just trying to get people to keep this on their radar.”

The training discourages cowering in a corner or huddling together in fear, Brouillette emphasized at the Kansas City session.

Instead, Metropolitan Community College faculty members were taught to be aware of their surroundings and to think of common classroom objects as “improvised weapons.”

The program has been bought by nearly 500 colleges, which tailor the company's safety messages — laid out in instructional videos and other training guides — to craft localized violence prevention programs. Spivey expects that by year's end that number will have grown to about 1,000 schools.

Schools may provide the training to students as well as staff, as at Metropolitan, or limit it to instructors or security personnel.

“It's a dark subject,” Brouillette said. “But we can't say ‘It's never going to happen again.' It's ‘When is it going to happen?' And we have to be prepared to survive that.”