In the wake of Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech, officials at Fairmont State and West Virginia University said their campuses are as safe as they can make them.

Monday, a gunman entered a dormitory at Virginia Tech at about 7:15 a.m., reportedly killing two people. At about 9:26 a.m., he entered a classroom building where 31 people, including the gunman, died after being locked inside.

Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old senior majoring in English, is suspected of committing the crimes. Cho reportedly was born in South Korea, but raised near Washington D.C. He is believed to have committed suicide.

Bob Roberts, chief of WVU’s police force and director of public safety, said the campus is “reasonably safe and secure.”

“In my opinion, Fairmont State is very safe,” said Bill Bickerstaff, the university’s director of occupational safety and chief of police. “I hope we’re as safe as we can make it. I think we’re doing the right thing.”

There have been many questions on the national level about communication between the Virginia Tech officials and students. The Associated Press has reported there were two hours between the first shooting in a dormitory and a campus-wide e-mail, which wasn’t sent out until after the second shooting began.

Both Bickerstaff and Roberts said they didn’t want to comment on the specifics at Virginia Tech, although they admitted they had similar problems on their campuses.

Roberts declined to provide specifics about campus communications, beyond explaining WVU would communicate with students through e-mail and safety contacts in each residence hall.

“We have lots of different routes of communication,” he said.

Bickerstaff said Fairmont State has already seen problems with sending campus-wide e-mails. Last week, an FSU student was diagnosed with viral meningitis. A campus-wide e-mail was sent to notify students the day the diagnosis was announced. That day a meeting was held in the residence hall the student lived in.

Bickerstaff said of the 50 students who attended the meeting, only three had read the e-mail.

Like Virginia Tech, the bulk of Fairmont State’s students commute to the campus each day.

“I don’t know how we’d get the word out to the masses,” Bickerstaff said.

One advantage Fairmont State has is the small size of the main campus, he said. The campus is 114 total acres, and many buildings are close together. Also, with only three driving entrances to campus, officers could close transportation routes onto university property, Bickerstaff said.

Both universities have a police or security force and agreements for assistance from other local law enforcement agencies, such as the police force in the cities and counties in which they are located.

At WVU, the primary security responses are handled by the campus police force.

Roberts noted his force has mutual-aid agreements with other local law-enforcement agencies, including the Morgantown Police Department. The two departments are somewhat intertwined, Roberts said, even training together.

“Our history with the Morgantown police goes back 40 years,” Roberts said.

Morgantown police Lt. Mike Lantz said the police departments work closely together, from the administration to officers in the field. The two departments even perform joint duty for football games.

“It’s always better to work with an agency than not,” Lantz said. “It’s beneficial for the students and the community. We work together toward solving problems and making events successful.”

Fairmont Police Chief Steve Cain noted local law enforcement would do everything possible to prevent a tragedy, such as the massacre at Virginia Tech, from happening here.

Bickerstaff said campus security and police officers patrol the campus 24 hours a day, seven days per week, including holidays. Security cameras in public areas, such as the parking garage, help campus officers keep an eye on the university, he said.

Roberts and Lantz noted they frequently update emergency plans, working through a variety of scenarios and tabletop exercises to prepare for both man-made and natural disaster situations.

Emergency plans are also a priority at Fairmont State. Bickerstaff said the university’s emergency plans are updated regularly so that in any given situation, officials can quickly mobilize to minimize the impact of a tragedy.

Bickerstaff and Roberts noted they would incorporate lessons learned at Virginia Tech into their emergency plans.

“Anytime these things happen, we monitor the situation there and check for implications for our community,” Roberts said. “We learn the lessons from there to improve our safety and security.”

While both officials said their campuses are secure, they both noted public places, like colleges and universities, have to strike a balance between security and being open to the public.

“Public access is big for universities,” Bickerstaff said. “You don’t want a Gestapo-style campus. We are a public place, just like a shopping center. We don’t want to be a gated community.”

Tuesday, in a written statement, Gov. Joe Manchin announced he has ordered Brian Noland, chancellor of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, and Jim Skidmore, chancellor of the state’s community and technical colleges, to review security plans and procedures at higher-education institutions in the Mountain State. Findings and concerns are to be reported directly to Manchin as soon as possible.

“We all take the security of our children and students extremely seriously and have a responsibility to those who were lost to do everything possible to learn from this horrendous event,” Manchin said.

In a written statement, Manchin relayed the state’s sympathy for the people of Virginia and the Virginia Tech community and announced all West Virginia state flags would be lowered to half staff until sunset Sunday.

“Our state has greatly appreciated the prayers and support given to us by the people of Virginia during our times of crisis, and I want them to know that we are there for them during theirs. The deaths of so many young people under such dreadful circumstances impact us all,” Manchin said.

E-mail Katie Wilson at kwilson@timeswv.com.

Recommended for you