For Virginia Tech student Erin Sheehan, it was a morning that would have seemed so familiar to University of Michigan students: a 9 a.m. German class, some unseasonable snow.
Then the shots came. By the time a gunman had finished spraying the classroom with bullets, Sheehan was one of only four survivors out of the 25 in the room, she told the Virginia Tech student newspaper yesterday.
In Ann Arbor, as students tried to make sense of the killings and contact friends and family in Blacksburg, Va., many wondered: Could this happen here?
University of Michigan officials said that while campus police could not be completely certain that a similar attack could not happen here, Department of Public Safety officers have been trained to respond to such an incident. University President Mary Sue Coleman sought to reassure students in an e-mail message to campus last night.
“We are all saddened and horrified by today’s shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech,” she wrote.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said Coleman, who was traveling outside of Ann Arbor, sent a private condolence message to Virginia Tech President Charles Steger yesterday.
Virginia Tech administration and police were already being criticized last night for failing to close down campus after a 7:15 a.m. shooting in a dorm. More than two hours later, a gunman opened fire across campus in Norris Hall – where Sheehan had German class – and killed more than 30 students.
DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown said she could not speculate on what specific steps police might take in response to a shooting on campus, but she said DPS officers are trained in “quick action deployment,” a model that includes the use of special tactics and equipment and can be used to respond to a situation similar to the one at Virginia Tech.
Brown said DPS has increased such training in recent years in response to workplace and school shootings.
Some students interviewed yesterday called for administrators to increase security on campus.
“I used to walk around campus alone at night up until this point, but now I’m afraid to go to class,” said LSA freshman Fiona Nowlin.
The shootings took place in a dorm and a classroom building.
“The University needs to make sure that only students enter University buildings,” Nowlin said.
But Brown said the University needs to find a balance between security and openness.
“We don’t want to make our campus so restrictive that you can’t have a community environment,” Brown said. “We’re not a gated community. We’re not a private institution. We are open to public.”
After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, many high schools installed metal detectors and tightened security.
Brown said because no building can be made completely secure, students should call police when they see suspicious activity on campus and not let people they don’t know into residence halls.
“We have the residence halls locked 24 hours a day,” she said. “Yet we know that people that are unauthorized are getting in.”
As of deadline early this morning, police had not confirmed that the two separate shootings were connected. The chief of the Virginia Tech campus police said at a press conference last night that the gunman responsible for the second wave of shootings, who was found dead at the scene, was not a Virginia Tech student.
Brown said that the University is part of a county-wide agreement that would ensure that DPS got help in an emergency situation from area police agencies, including the Ann Arbor Police Department.
But communications with those other agencies could be a problem, Brown said. She said DPS can get a common channel with only some of the surrounding police departments.
“Right now that is a bit of a challenging situation,” she said.
There is an effort underway to improve emergency communications between police agencies in Washtenaw County, Brown said.
Brown said she doesn’t know what changes in campus security the shootings might cause.
“It’s reasonable to expect that police agencies across the country and universities across the country are going to be following this incident closely and looking for lessons learned,” Brown said.
– Jessica Vosgerchian and Alese Bagdol contributed to this report.
Once, It happened Here
In 1981, a gunman killed two in Bursley Hall
On April 17, 1981, 22-year-old University student Leo Kelly threw multiple Molotov cocktails down a wing of Bursley Hall’s Douglas House, igniting small fires and prompting the evacuation of the dormitory.
In the pandemonium that followed, Kelly went into his single occupancy dorm room and reemerged in the hallway brandishing a sawed-off, 12-gauge shotgun.
Kelly fired down the hallway, killing freshman Edward Siwik and resident advisor Douglas McGreaham, who were shot at point-blank range.
Police found Kelly calm and coherent sitting on his bed with the recently discharged shotgun, and took him into custody.
Randy Moon, another RA in Bursley, described the occurrence as a “random shooting” and investigators were unable to determine any kind of motive for Kelly’s actions.
A jury found Kelly guilty after a week-long trial. He was condemned to life in prison.