And yet, campus policing has gotten so much better since my college days, to wit:
Legal liability for the Virginia Tech massacre: Have reforms birthed by the U of Texas tower shootings made a difference?
In August 1981, just out of law school and fresh from a bar exam, I reported for duty as an assistant professor of business law at the University of Texas, Austin. Not long into the fall semester, I learned that when the Texas Longhorns won, the 307-foot tower dominating the campus glowed burnt-orange. As attractive as the tower was, I also soon learned that it was closed to visitors. By contrast, in 1966 the 28th floor observation deck hosted some 20,000 tourists annually. Here's why.
On August 1, 1966, a 25-year-old ex-marine named Charles Joseph Whitman, having murdered wife and mother the night before, climbed the University of Texas tower and shot some 45 passers-by. He managed to kill 14, before being shot to death himself.
Addressing what went wrong before and during the tower massacre changed the way not only the University of Texas, but all of higher education, thinks about and tries to deal with dangerous people on our campuses.
Identifying and treating the mentally ill student
On March 29, 1966, Whitman - who was then a student at U.T. - was referred to Dr. M.D. Heatly on the university’s health center staff.the university’s health center staff. Dr. Heatly opened his report, “This massive , muscular youth seemed to be oozing with hostility.” Whitman admitted “that he had on two occasions assaulted his wife physically.” He told Heatly that in the marines he’d been court-martialed for fighting. Most remarkably, Heatly recorded, “Repeated inquiries attempting to analyze his exact experiences were not too successful with the exception of his vivid reference to ‘thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people.’” The good doctor’s solution? “No medication was given to this youth at this time and he was told to make an appointment for the same day next week; and should he feel that he needs to talk to this therapist, he could call me at any time during the interval.”
Within days of the August 1 shootings, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, founded decades earlier on the U.T. campus, ramped up efforts to improve availability of services for psychologically troubled members of the campus community. Student-counseling services were expanded, including services aimed specifically at patients in “crisis situations.”
The university closed the tower for two years, then closed it again in 1975 following a series of sporadic suicide jumps from its heights.
Today, every campus has its counseling center and its policies on threats of violence and suicide. Yet costly, high profile lawsuits involving students’ violence toward themselves and others abound. Universities still struggle with responsibility for campus safety and the individual rights of students, specifically whether to treat or expel such students. And, as the VTU tragedy demonstrates, identification and prevention remain elusive goals.
From Keystone Kops to campus police departments
According to author Gary Lavergne, who wrote a book about the tower shootings, “The university (in 1966) had no real police department, only a few unarmed men who spent most of their time issuing parking permits.” Today, the U.T. System Police website states, “Our official creation as a police agency occurred in 1967 and was largely the result of a sniping incident on August 1, 1966 on the U.T. Austin campus.
During the 1967 session of the Texas Legislature, authorized the Lone Star State’s public colleges and universities to commission their security personnel as “peace officers.” Countless campuses across the country followed suit. For example, Philadelphia’s Temple University on the city’s dangerous north side boasts one of Pennsylvania’s largest police forces. Meanwhile, most U.S. cities similarly taking their lead from Austin, Texas have created SWAT teams.
Nonetheless, as the VTU tragedy bitterly attests, campus police and city SWAT teams are no magic shield, when pitted against a determined mass killer.
Texas tower redux
The U.T. Tower was once again reopened in late 1998, following $500,000-worth of renovations to prevent jumping. Tours today are sadly by appointment only.