One Small Oregon Town Deals With America’s Growing Trend Of Gun Violence
(In the aftermath of the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, the test every student needs to prepare for.)
By: Sarah Glass @SASzilla
It’s something we all grew up with.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
The fire alarm would echo through the school hallways over the intercom. Depending on the class, there would either be a collective sigh throughout the room as we began our choreographed shuffle, or eyes would flutter to attention, scoping the room for a classmate with whom to pass this brief reprieve from monotony. Undoubtedly a teacher would tell everyone to leave their belongings and instruct the students where they were expected to meet outside the building. Once outside and corralled to the designated “safe zone,” roll call would be taken to make sure no one was left behind in the building. Simple, right?
Vigil at Stewart Park the day after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. (photo at imgur.com/gallery/Ibw6rIy)
My high school participated in several versions of this kind of emergency protocol. We also rehearsed what to do should an earthquake or intruder threaten the school. How helpful these exercises can be is debatable. Being inundated with the same kind of Pavlovian association our whole young lives, the fire alarm bell or the call for a lockdown, is it really necessary to repeat the same exercises as an adult in college? Surely these lessons transmigrated with the students to their higher institutions of learning, or is it possible they need to be continued, if not upgraded? College campuses have multiple buildings and a multitude of not only full, but part-time students to coordinate. The POP POP of a gun going off at school will certainly elicit a different response in them then the sound of the bell we were all raised with.
On October first of this year, nine people lost their lives, and more were injured by a single gunman on the grounds of the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Oregon. This shooter, Chris Harper Mercer, 26, later took his own life after police arrived.
According to a thorough study done by the Strategic Management Department at the University of Quebec, in over 85% of school shootings, the attacker is affiliated with the school. Chris Harper Mercer, a student enrolled at UCC this term, adds himself to this ghastly statistic. Aspects of his personal life, as appropriated by an article in The New York Times, reveal that among his interests were the methods employed by the IRA, and a fervent belief, if not feeling of personal obligation, to exercise his Second Amendment rights, made evident by his personal arsenal of at least 13 firearms. Whatever fueled Mercer’s sudden violent break, it’s possible more may be revealed once his as-of-yet undisclosed manifesto is made public.
Until then, if sharing his collection of weaponry with his mother, getting discharged by the army before he could complete basic training, or too little tit as a baby was a predisposition for becoming a killer, no one can know sure.
What is obvious, is that school shootings have become a horrible trend recurring at an outstanding rate over the last 20 years. Searching for solutions or something tangible to blame, I wonder why places of education everywhere shouldn’t review and instruct students about these horrible but possible scenarios. While a difficult notion to swallow, school shootings are no longer a nightmare experienced by an unlucky few, rather they are the reality for whole communities. Carrie Hilliker-Neet, a Roseburg resident, mother of a UCC student herself, Samarah Nichole Neet, and relative of the victim, Rebecka Carnes, writes to Reviewer Magazine, “Being such a small community, we know each other intimately. A fear of the unknown has overwhelmed many. On the surface we look strong but under it we are still screaming why.”
Facebook picture of Neet’s cousins and UCC students Bethany Johnson and Rebecka Carnes (in glasses). Rebecka was one of the victims of the October 1st shooting.
I polled 31 students all currently enrolled at either Umpqua Community College, Lane Community College’s main or downtown campus, or the University of Oregon. When asked to recall how their schools prepared them to respond to emergencies on campus, nearly all the students shared similar responses.
The nine UCC students who participated in the poll were all were on campus the day of the shooting save Samarah Nichole Neet, her mother thankful that, “By the grace of God we both overslept.” Each of the students answered with an awe-stricking “No” when asked if their school had ever prepared them in any way for emergencies on campus. While most of the students requested I omit their names, one woman expanded on the subject, sharing, “It was a big issue after the shooting that no one was ever given any instruction on what to do in case of an emergency. Also the emergency procedures were never used. They [Umpqua Community College] have an emergency system at the school, but no one used it. I’m not sure if staff didn’t use it because they were not educated on it or because they just didn’t use it. It was a lock down system and it was not activated. I’m sure their thought was that nothing would ever happen here.”
Over at the University of Oregon, the story is much the same. Hailey Pratt-Stibich, a student in her junior year studying physics, both long in hair and long in legs, revealing, “I can’t remember any kind of instruction being given on the subject, but I had orientation three years ago,” and, “I’m not really the person to ask about what to do.”
I asked Haily if her school has at least reviewed safety strategy since the Roseburg shooting, “I haven’t heard anything like that,” she answers, “No.”
Andrea Cline, a full-time student studying at LCC’s main campus, answers the same questions I posed to the students before her: “Has what to do if there’s ever an emergency on campus ever come up in your classes at LCC, or been a part of any information you’ve received there?”
Andrea, who returned to school two years ago after a ten-year hiatus, strokes her yellow lab, Milo, and tells me what I’ve come to expect as a typical response to this poll. “No,” she tells me, “but I had orientation a few years ago. I don’t know if things have changed since then. All I know is the school has everyone’s number, and we’re suppose to receive emergency text messages if anything happens.”
A second-year student at LCC’s downtown campus, Mark Luden, is the only student I talked to who had both received some kind of information on safe zones in his school building and who had participated in at least one kind of drill there. However, according to Luden, the drill performed was a simple fire drill practiced only last term, not when he started school two years ago, and the information on safe zones was to be found only in an information packet he had been given.
Apparently, safety education and preparation amnesia has found its way into U of O faculty as well. A professor at the university who wishes only to be referred to as F, retired just this summer. He begins our telephone conversation listing his credentials for me, telling me of the 20 years he taught at the university and how in that time he rose to be the head of his own department.
“While you were at the U of O, how did the school prepare students and staff for emergencies that might break out on campus?” I inquire.
“It was not really clear,” he recalls, hesitantly searching his memory to ensure accuracy. “Only staff and student workers participated in any kind of drill I was a part of, and even then, there was no discussion of violent attacks.”
I let F continue, asking, “If students weren’t a part of the drills, what did the faculty do to prepare the students, or educate them on the matter?”
“I don’t think anything was conveyed to them. I taught classes and safety procedures were never something we went over on the first day of school. It was never a part of any of the information packets I went over with the students. There wasn’t even mention of natural disasters.”
F seems as surprised by the administrative oversights our conversation was revealing as I am. “As a faculty member, what were you trained to do in case of any kind of emergency?” I press on.
“We knew the emergency numbers to call, but it wasn’t clear how to react,” he replied. “That really wasn’t part of the training. Only if someone pulled the fire alarm would I know to do something, to evacuate. And then it was just assumed the staff would assist the students. Otherwise it would leave everyone for themselves.”
Further findings in their study of school shootings, the Strategic Management Department at the University of Quebec states that it’s this very thing: “In many of the school shooting events that were investigated, the root cause was somehow related to some ambiguities and or omissions in the hiring/firing/evaluation and promotion policies of the school involved. These policies – that were rather vague and lacked rigor – have contributed to creating frustration among the members of the organization and thus have induced in the organization a vulnerability to violence-related hazards.”
After my interview with F, I start to think this obvious patchwork of policy may be cause for alarm. With both part-time and full-time students falling through the cracks, and infrequently reminded of emergency procedures, if at all.
I sit down with Sergeant Glass of the Oregon State Police Department and Oregon SWAT team at a delicatessen in Springfield, The Lucky Lizard.
Crime scene tape limits access to Umpqua Community College on Oct. 2, 2015, in Roseburg, Oregon. (Credit: Getty Images / Scott Olson)
I shrug, trying to think where to begin. “What can the police really do to prevent these kind of events, especially when the students and faculty are the real first-responders?” I ask Sergeant Glass, in regards to the October first UCC shooting. With his shaved head and broad cop physique, Sergeant Glass starts numbering off counter-measures as concisely as a general would over a war-map discussing strategy.
“The first line of defense,” he begins, “in these situations has to be the students and staff. There has to be some kind of training. The police can only respond. A person’s morality or mental health, we can’t fix that. We can only respond and help prevent through education. I know the Oregon State Police or the Salem Police have been known to give presentations at schools upon request.”
I continue, “I know once you reach the scene, a lot of damage has already been done. What can students do while waiting for SWAT or campus police to protect themselves?”
“If you aren’t sure you can safely flee the scene then barricade yourself inside a room, preferably, or hide anywhere you can. If you’re in the room with the shooter then you have two options. If you are far away you can try to hide or escape depending on the situation, or even look for a way to defend yourself. If you are closer and being shot at, one tactic would be to have everyone in the room charge the shooter. A lot of people think this is a sure way to get shot, but then so does just standing there if you’re being shot at. Just look at what happened with the train shooting in France. Two guys, marines, as a matter of fact, rushed the shooter and subdued him before he could kill anyone (HERE). Everybody rushing the assailant at once has the possibility of startling him, for one, and it could also overload his senses so that he won’t be able to focus or find a target to shoot at.”
“I had no idea,” I interject, thinking myself how counter-intuitive the idea might sound to people at first, but ultimately understanding the logic.
The sergeant and SWAT veteran doesn’t hesitate in his answer. “In the state of Oregon you have to be 21 to get a concealed weapons permit. If, say, a teacher, has had the right training it’s possible firearms in the hands of the right people at a school could be a valid second line of defense. Some students have military backgrounds, like the men on the train in the France shooting, or Chris Mintz, the army vet at Umpqua, that tried to take down the shooter there. Another option is to allow students like Chris, that meet a certain criteria and have been through documented training with firearms, to be allowed to carry a concealed weapon on campus. But only those known and approved by the school and with the appropriate training.”
I thank Sergeant Glass for his time, realizing that school shootings have become a real threat, not just a few people’s nightmare. The needless loss of Sarena Moore, Rebecka Carnes, Kim Dietz, Lucas Eibel, Lucero Alcaraz, Quinn Cooper, Jason Johnson, Treven Anspach, and Lawrence Levine will not soon be forgotten by the Roseburg community. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to make sure school shootings never happen again. However, whether pro-gun control or not, all the students I polled agreed that they had yet to be thoroughly educated on the basic emergency procedures employed by their schools. While it’s appalling that a place of education should need to adapt such precautions, they might be worth their employ if it’s possible to have even one less name listed under the headline of a similar tragedy.
The entrance to Umpqua Community College the Sunday before school reopens. (photo by Toni Davis)