The phone call shattered the early morning stillness when I learned one of our students had shot a housemate to death, severely injured another and then taken his own life on Feb. 12.
The shooter fired a pistol, but a submachine gun, multiple rounds of ammunition and a machete were found near his body. Apparently, he bought the fatal weapon legally. Police later reported he had a history of mental illness — something we had not known, and that privacy regulations would have kept us from finding out. All this happened in a house off the campus.
About 16 hours later, hundreds of us came together in the Memorial Chapel to mourn our loss. Many wept; all were stunned. The tragic events pierced our community’s emotional armor and awakened our vulnerability.
We are a campus family of some 37,000 students and 13,000 faculty and staff. We must take thoughtful action together.
Safety is priority No. 1 . The crime rate on the campus has declined over the past five years. Robberies are down by more than 50 percent and burglaries by an even larger margin. There were two cases of aggravated assault last year — less than one-fourth the number five years earlier. Even one criminal act is too many, but we are moving in the right direction.
As a community, we must constantly work to strengthen security through all available means. Our approach must be comprehensive.
Across the country, college students’ mental health needs continue to grow. In a recent national survey of college counseling services, 88 percent reported a rise on their campuses in the number of students with significant psychological problems. More than one-fifth reported a marked increase in student-to-student violence over the past five years.
The growing demand for psychological counseling taxes campus resources nationwide. Even before our recent tragedy, we had allocated funds for additional mental health professionals to meet growing demand here. We will find the money to increase our staff even further.
Dangerous behavior may be preceded by some subtle signs. “See something, say something” is important, but it may be awkward or uncomfortable to speak out. We have in place a special unit composed of mental health professionals and police — the BETA Team — to assess signs of unusual behavior. This is a best practice adopted at many universities. We will develop additional channels to make sure any troubling signals can be reported safely and confidentially.
All of us applaud the University Senate for its recent vote to expand the Good Samaritan policy. Students should not have to hesitate to call for help for fear of possible disciplinary sanctions if they or a fellow student have a medical emergency due to drug or alcohol use, whatever the circumstances. Caring for each other’s safety is always our primary concern.
We have a large and outstanding University Police Department under the leadership of Chief David Mitchell that provides sophisticated security. We have flexible patrol routes that put officers where they are most needed. We have a network of security cameras, monitored 24/7.
Our goal this semester is to expand campus police coverage to city neighborhoods that are not currently within their jurisdiction, but where many students live, such as the area where the shooting occurred. We want them to patrol these areas together with the county police. Also, we want to extend the reach of our student conduct code into areas of expanded campus police jurisdiction. These concurrent actions will increase the welfare and security of our students.
We will invest in more campus police officers, patrol cars and increased patrols. Our university is not an oasis. To be successful, there will have to be close collaboration with the city, the county and the state.
The shooting of our students so close to the campus was a tragedy. Given the circumstances, it could have been a mass tragedy. We must address gun safety in our state.
Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed a legislative package that limits the availability of weapons for those with serious mental health issues who may pose a threat to others, improves information-sharing concerning such conditions and sets a minimum age for gun ownership. The bill also bans assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
I respect the constitutional right of gun ownership. Strengthening regulations will save lives and need not strangle this right. As part of our university’s comprehensive approach to safety, I urge the General Assembly to enact the governor’s gun safety legislation.
On the night of the shooting, we mourned together, we supported each other and I pledged to enhance the safety of our university community. Now is the time to follow through together. The work has already begun.
Wallace Loh is President of the University of Maryland. He may be reached at email@example.com and @presidentloh on Twitter.