Christian colleges weigh open access v. security concerns in light of shootings


Earlier this year, a disgruntled former student walked into a tiny Christian college in Oakland, Calif. and opened fire, killing seven and wounding three others.

The April attack at Oikos University—one of the deadliest college shooting sprees in California history—demonstrated that Christian campuses are not immune to unprovoked acts of violence.

Just as their secular private and public counterparts can attest, weighing the balance of safety and access is an ongoing dance for security personnel at Christian campuses.

"All these things have really spurred some intense conversations among institutions of higher education in the U.S., and we are continuing to talk about that," said Dr. Derek Vergara, associate vice president of student affairs at Concordia University Irvine, Irvine, Calif. "I don't want to make a pun, here, but there is just no silver bullet for safety."

Unlike most corporations, which have set hours and a consistent employee roster, universities are home to a student and faculty pool with divergent schedules. Added to the mix are guest speakers, visiting professors, vendors and dorm residents.

At Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, Calif., the cliff-side campus is isolated at the end of a road. Even so, a public beach below the university requires that security and staff allow the public to have unlimited access to the shore.

Jeffrey Carr, the associate vice president for student development at PLNU, acknowledges that people come from all over to enjoy the secluded, yet popular beach.

"On the campus itself, you have a number of mechanisms to manage and maintain a safe environment," Carr said. "There are a number of things we have to balance between the traffic of our regular students and staff and guests."

Both security experts said it is unrealistic to believe that any college, including Christian institutes, could exempt themselves from such an attack, even with the latest technologies.

"Even the best institutions have their plans, but when something happens you are navigating through each arena, you are jumping through different hoops and are really trying to address issues as they come and trying to be intuitive as different things come down the pike and trying to address that as well," Vergara said.

An eye to behavior
In 2004, Point Loma, which this year had 2,376 enrolled students and 1,592 living in dorms, implemented a Behavior Intervention Team to regularly access security by monitoring the conduct of potentially troubled students and staff members. The team meets once a week to aess possible trouble spots.

The BIT teams, as they are called, have become more popular on campuses in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting massacre, in which a student killed 32 of his peers and staff before killing himself. Following the release of the "Governor's Panel Report" on the Virginia shootings, new protocol was created for BIT teams. The National Center for Higher Education Risk Management includes a list of its recommendations through its Best Practices guide.

Carr said even with the guidelines it is difficult to predict when an incident will unfold. In most instances, he said, the shooters have gone to great length to plan and execute their reign of terror.

"Identifying possible sources and neutralizing them is not a 100 percent mechanism to prevent something from happening," the PLNU official said.

"Almost every single one of those institutions where that has happened over the past 10 years were very different in causes, and how they played out. No matter what you do, there is going to be an opportunity for them to complete whatever they decide to do."

Strong assessments
John Ojeisekhoba, chief of public safety at Biola University, La Mirada, Calif., said his campus is constantly evaluating both its education and prevention measures, offering training to help keep those on campus safe. In addition, eight of his campus officers carry guns, and three others are going through the seven-step process to qualify for a weapon.

"We never sit down and say we've done enough," Ojeisekhoba said. "But the situation in Oakland, how can you stop that? How will you know that someone is walking around armed?"

At the time of the Oikos University shooting, Ojeisekhoba said he was in the process of finalizing a 40-page assessment of the campus.

"We are very blessed to have a president and staff that wants to do their best to equip the campus safety department with what it needs," the La Mirada chief said. "Inaction can be an even bigger liability."

Several months before this latest attack, Ojeisekhoba conducted a review of several decades of school and university shootings, compiling data from 80 campuses, 20 of which were at faith-based colleges.

The information will be used to assess his own campus against possible vulnerable spots.

"My officers know every inch of this place," he said.

Responsibility and accountability
Recognizing that prevention can only go so far, the campus security officials said they spend a great deal of time educating students, staff, faculty and—even parents—on how best to respond in the event of an active shooter on campus.

"We try to do as much preventive front loading that we can," Carr said.

Vergara said one of the topics he tries to instill in the 3,400-member student body is not to abdicate their own safety responsibilities onto everyone else.

"Safety for students is the responsibility of everybody," said Vergara, adding that the campus houses 878 people on site. "Students need to be educated about how to be responsible, and they also have to take accountability not only for themselves but for others. The university also has a responsibility to try to maintain a safe and inclusive environment where the goal is people can study."