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Latest Campus Gun Scare: Are Worcester Campuses Prepared?

Friday, April 05, 2013


URI Campus Scare -- Are Worcester schools prepared for a gun incident?

The gun scare that occurred at the University of Rhode Island on Thursday has Worcester schools and officials taking yet again another look at specter of gun violence on college campuses.  How well prepared is Worcester? 

The incident that took place on the South Kingstown, Rhode Island campus began with a call late morning to state police reporting a gunman in a university lecture hall.  After a text alert went out and the school was locked down for several hours -- and local and national media honed in on the story -- police determined there was no gunman or weapon.  

"The notion that a person with a gun, or the prospect of a gun, can insert themselves in these types of situations in public spaces, will continue to happen unless we find ways to better address the situation," said Dr. Michael Hirsh, Worcester's acting Commissioner of Public Health and Professor of Pediatrics and Surgery at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in a call with GoLocalWorcester on Thursday.  "We can either take the increased drastic measures that we see abroad, such as metal detectors and armed guards, or we can continue to take proactive steps to address the issue of gun violence."  

Last June, the City of Worcester, under the direction of City Manager Michael O'Brien, launched the Community Health Initiatives Program (CHIP) to devise a strategy for increased public health in the region.  After months of analysis, the Worcester Community Health Improvement Plan was launched, with the goal of Worcester becoming the region's "healthiest city" by 2020.  As one of the instrumental voices in the process, Hirsh noted that injury and violence prevention -- including gun violence -- are one of the major focus areas of the program.  

"Deputy Chief of Police [Edward] McGinn continues to be instrumental in working in with the Worcester colleges on this, and has the Worcester Police working closely with campus police on best practices.  With nearly 70,000 students in the region, we absolutely have to address the prospect of gun violence at the schools," said Hirsh.  

Worcester Colleges No Strangers to Gun Scares

Following the incident at URI yesterday, Cristal Steuer, Manager of Communications and Media Relations at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, issued the following statement on behalf of the college.

"At the College of the Holy Cross, our students, faculty and staff are our highest priority. The College has an established and rigorously reviewed Emergency Preparedness Plan. Public Safety, faculty, and administrators train and prepare on a continual basis for any campus emergencies, including dealing with serious situations such as an intruder or active shooter on campus, fire and explosion responses, and evacuation procedures—as well as crowd management and general campus safety. The College has a strong partnership and open lines of communication with local, state and federal emergency service providers."

Holy Cross recently itself dealt with an incident this past December.  Student Gregory Hamalian was arraigned on charges of threatening to commit a crime when he posted on social media sites plans to attack a screening of "The Hobbit," and said he admired Colorado movie theater gunman James Holmes.  After State Police requested the Internet Protocol (IP) address from the social media site and tracked it to Holy Cross, school authorities pinpointed the address to his dorm room, where police apprehended Hamalian.  The school then placed Hamalian on interim suspension pending legal proceedings.  

Other Worcester colleges have confronted gun violence issues in the past year, including a shooting threat made to Catholic Charities at Clark University in December, a week after the Newton, CT tragedy.  The Worcester Police Department was able to identify the caller but deemed it not to be a credible threat.  

In April 2012, Assumption College student Kevin Forts reportedly sent letters of support to Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred 77 people at a youth summer camp.  Following the reports, the college initially issued the a statement condemning the violence in Norway but saying Forts had the right to free speech as U.S. Citizen, but later announced he would "not be on campus for the foreseeable future."  

How Prepared is Worcester?

On a number of college websites, emergency protocols are outlined for students, faculty, and the community in the event of an "active shooter" incident.  Holy Cross, Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Quinsigamond Community College, and Worcester State University all have plans available online for the school and the public as to how to react in the event of a reported gunman.  

"What a lot of folks don't realize is that the City of Worcester actually has the lowest penetrating trauma rate in the state," said Hirsh, regarding the number of reported stab or gunshot wound incidents.  "Chief McGinn has made gun violence reduction a priority.  We've seen a steady decline in gun violence in Worcester since 2004, and continue to work to do so."

Hirsh noted that specific measures are being taken in Worcester regarding gun violence and gun safety, including requiring potential buyers to declare their intent and purpose for purchasing a gun, a gun "buy-back" program that has brought in over 2300 guns to date, as well as the distribution of over 1000 gun locks, and the treatment of a gun shooting by City Police as the same as if a homicide occurred, even if no one was hurt.

"We don't dispute the Second Amendment and gun owner rights in any way," said Hirsh, who added however that the program is not without controversy, as there is a pending lawsuit in the state over the current discretionary licensing practices.  

Circling back to the issue on college campuses, Hirsh added that the Worcester College Consortium is actively engaged in all aspects of the Community Health Improvement Program, of which tackling gun violence -- and all forms of violent behavior -- is part of a comprehensive approach to improving community health in Worcester.  

"[CHIP] also addresses other issues at colleges, including efforts to be smoke free, and binge drinking," said Hirsh.  "We know that healthy behaviors, whether it be nutrition, mental health, access to care, and conflict mediation, are all intertwined."  


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