Impact of Parkland Shooting felt across campus, attention turned again to gun policies

Ethan Ehrenhaft-

The Chamber’s flag pole flies at half-staff in remembrance of the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Emma Brentjens

On Thursday, February 15th, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation declaring that all flags flying over federal property and public grounds be lowered to half-staff out of respect for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida the previous day.

Three staff members and fourteen students were killed at Stoneman Douglas in what has become the nation’s latest mass shooting. In accordance with Trump’s proclamation, Chief of Campus Police Todd Sigler ordered the lowering of Davidson’s own flags by Chambers and the Vance Athletic Center. While it is a private institution, Davidson typically complies with federal half-staff ordinances.

The Parkland shooting reignited the debate over gun control on university campuses throughout the nation yet again, and Davidson proved no exception.

“I’ve grown up with the routine of grieving one mass shooting after another,” said Caroline Roy ‘20. “Our rituals and condolences don’t mean anything if we continue to permit gun violence.”

Amidst this debate, The Davidsonian sought to take a fresh look at the college’s own rules and protocol concerning firearms. Davidson’s weapon policy, as laid out in the Student Handbook, is short and blunt in its wording. According to the handbook, the school “prohibits possession of weapons of any type by students, employees, and visitors on all college property, including guns, both concealed and visible, and without regard to the validity of any permits.” Knives and explosive devices are included in this ban.

“Whenever we run into a weapon issue, our protocol is to call Campus Police,” said Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life Jason Shaffer. “If an RA were to observe a weapon in a room or a student were to report a friend or roommate or someone they heard about having a weapon, we are immediately going to involve campus police.”

Sigler stated that pocketknives and fireworks are the items most commonly confiscated from students. Officers are often accommodating, allowing students to take personal knives back home or keeping them in storage until an individual is able to do so. According to Clery Act Reports from 2014 to 2016, Davidson’s main campus saw 25 “weapons law violations” where individuals were “referred for disciplinary action.” Of these 25 referrals, two were for airsoft guns and six for fireworks. The remainder were all for some form of bladed weapon.

In regard to guns, Davidson’s policy is afforded its stringent language thanks to the school’s status as a private entity. “The ability of public schools to allow guns or the ability of Davidson to prohibit them is rooted in the extent to which the Constitution applies to those entities,” stated Dr. Andrew O’Geen, a professor in the Political Science Department whose research focuses in part on the American judicial system.

There are no federal laws prohibiting the possession of guns on university grounds. The way states regulate gun policy for their institutions of higher learning varies considerably. While many states have enacted legislation limiting or banning the presence of firearms on campuses,  “12 states force public colleges or universities to allow concealed carry of guns,” according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Southern Illinois University (SIU), where Sigler previously served as Chief of Police, allows students to own firearms provided they are “in the possession or control of an on-duty sworn law enforcement officer” or kept within designated areas.

“It worked fine, but it was a different environment,” explained Sigler, who said that SIU has a sizeable hunting community and the necessary resources to implement a safe gun storage program. He stated he gets roughly one to two requests annually at Davidson from students interested in finding storage units for their own firearms. He typically directs them to local gun clubs.

While weapons policy is codified and easy to put on paper, protocol for what to do in the event of an active shooter is an entirely different issue.

“There is a bit of criticism and questioning going on right now with regards to the training that surrounds active shooters,” said Sigler. All campus officers have attended solo active shooter training classes as part of their in-service programs, the latest of which occurred last month. One officer was also sent to the instructor training program so they can give additional lessons to peers back at Davidson.

Campus police will likely be subject to more refreshers and reviews regarding responses to active shooters going forward, according to Sigler. “Unfortunately, it is going to be something that is touched much more frequently,” he remarked.

One issue concerning active shooter response training is that there is no uniform response to this particular kind of threat. “You need to think in terms of scenarios and not an all-or-nothing [approach],” said Sigler. He categorized active shooter response methods into pre- and post-Columbine methodologies. Before Columbine, local officers would attempt to contain the threat while waiting for the arrival of tactical units. At Columbine, this resulted in “a confused response that played out over several hours while a wounded teacher bled to death,” as recorded in The Washington Post.

The post-Columbine strategy operates under the assumption that police cannot wait to intervene in shootings that typically last only a matter of minutes. If a shooting occurred at Davidson, Campus Police would reach out to the town and Cornelius departments. The first officers on the scene would then go in and attempt to eliminate the threat.

In the event of an active shooter, Davidson would also be aided by Building Captains. Founded in 2012, Building Captains “are trained to understand, assess, and initiate safety responses, including ‘shelter in place’ evacuation, and ‘safe haven,’ procedures,” as outlined on the school’s website.

“Building Captains are really a model that we use for our non-residential buildings,” said Shaffer. The program is composed of volunteer administrators, assistants, faculty, and custodial staff who spend the majority of their time in one building and can thus be relied on in the event of an emergency. Sigler hopes to put on an active shooter training exercise for them this March.

Statistically speaking, college campuses are spaces that are relatively safe from gun violence. Out of 11,920 total firearm homicides in 2003, only 10 were committed on college grounds.

“I think there’s some real value in at least having an awareness of what the statistics say too about violence on campus,” emphasized Sigler. “Somebody might say, statistics aren’t going to save my life. Maybe not per se, but it allows you to have an intelligent conversation about ways that we can protect ourselves.”

Sigler reminds students that while the odds might not be high, an active shooter is still a threat that the campus must be prepared to deal with and prevent. Over the summer, stickers with mental health resources will be added to the backs of students’ dorm rooms in addition to the pre-existing stickers outlining responses for emergencies such as an active shooter.

“I would love for the notion that students communicating with us and with Campus Police about the things that they are seeing and worried about is one of the most important roles that RLO plays in helping keep campus safe,” reflected Shaffer.

“I don’t subscribe to this idea that the training is not worthwhile. I refuse to accept that. I think any time that you can have an opportunity to discuss strategies and response, that’s good. Some of the other measures that are discussed are probably conversations that are broader than me,” said Sigler.