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At Capitol, Tech Silent on Campus Safety Issues

February 5, 2012

By Mechelle Hankerson and Chaneé Patterson
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Five years after Virginia Tech made campus safety the focus of lawmakers across the nation, the school seems to be shying away from the issue during this year’s General Assembly session.

While Virginia Commonwealth University student groups made campus safety an explicit priority at their “Rams Day on the Hill,” Virginia Tech students participating in “Hokie Day 2012” were hesitant to say the school was focusing on anything except higher education funding.

Students from both schools visited Capital Square last week to present their legislative priorities to state lawmakers.

VCU’s Student Government Association provided participating students a list of talking points and bills on topics ranging from funding to concealed weapons on campus. Tech provided participating students with a folder including an itinerary, two pages of financial figures and a list of legislators and their phone numbers.

VCU’s SGA president, Asif Bhavnagri, said recent events at campuses across the country and specifically at Tech have made student safety an important issue for the urban university in Richmond.

“The dynamic way our university is laid out, it is important that (campus safety) is not forgotten,” Bhavnagri said.

A.J. Palmer, a student senator with the Virginia Tech Student Government Association, said Tech has always made funding the main focus for Hokie Day.

“It has always been about the funding,” said Palmer, who has attended the event the past three years. “I guess there’s this perception that it’s OK to cut higher education funding because we can just raise tuition.”

Tech’s state legislative liaison, Elizabeth Hooper, said students are the driving force behind what issues the university chooses to pursue during any legislative session.

“We like them to set their own agenda and talk about the things that are important to them,” Hooper said. “This is really their day.”

Tech SGA leaders said students help the association choose what issues to pursue. Campus security was not an issue brought to the SGA by students, they said.

“There’s a lot being done, and students feel like the campus community is really safe because we all depend on each other,” said the Tech SGA speaker of the House, senior Naomi Dam. “We have this environment where we all feel like members of the family, willing to reach out and extend our help to each other.”

Tech SGA members declined to comment on the omission of campus safety issues from Hokie Day.

According to Hooper, the Tech administration gives students information about the General Assembly session but does not push the students to pursue any issue.

Although it wasn’t addressed at Hokie Day, Hooper said the school opposes bills that would allow concealed weapons on campus, but officials are “letting the process work itself out.”

“We don’t want to make this about (Tech); this is about all of higher education being safe,” said Hooper, who was at Tech in 2007 when a student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 25 others before committing suicide.

Besides the student government associations at individual universities, a statewide advocacy group for college students also is asking the General Assembly to pay attention to higher education issues.

The group, Virginia21, will hold its annual lobby day Feb. 16. The organization’s concerns include campus safety – and specifically bills that would allow guns on campus.

Tom Kramer, director of Virginia21, said the group is focusing on House Bill 91, introduced by Republican Delegate Bob Marshall of Manassas. It would allow full-time faculty members at public colleges and universities to carry a licensed, concealed weapon.

Kramer said Virginia21 opposes the bill and supports the current process, in which each school’s governing body decides campus gun policies.

“Nobody in Richmond should be telling local … colleges how to determine what’s safe and unsafe” on campus, he said.

Another priority for Virginia21 is funding for higher education. The General Assembly is crafting a state budget for the next two years. Kramer is pleased by the budget proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. It would give public colleges and universities $100 million to help keep tuition costs down.

“Colleges will be a huge winner in this budget, and students will be a huge winner in this budget, as long as the General Assembly passes it,” Kramer said.

Kramer said Virginia21 plans to present a petition signed by 10,000 students supporting McDonnell’s budget.

“The governor is making higher education a lot more important in the budget than he has in past years,” Kramer said. “It’s come at the expense at many other state services, but … if we want to have an educated workforce, we have to make these investments.”

Bills of Interest to College Students

Here are House and Senate bills that Virginia Commonwealth University’s Student Government Association is tracking:

   – HB 191, by Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas: Allows full-time faculty members of 
     public institutions of higher education who possess a valid Virginia concealed
     handgun permit to carry a concealed handgun on campus.

   – HB 701, by Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield: Requires the chief
     law-enforcement officer of a public or private institution of higher education to 
     report the death or an alleged rape of any person on campus property to the
     law-enforcement agency of the locality in which the institution is located. The local 
     law-enforcement agency would assume responsibility for leading the investigation
     with cooperation from the college or university.
   
  –
HB 965, by Delegate Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville: Requires campus police to work 
     with a local law-enforcement agency or the State Police in investigating deaths and
     alleged rapes on college campuses.
 
   –
HB 967, also by Bell: Includes campus police in various definitions of
     “law-enforcement officers.”
   
   –
HB 969, also by Bell: Requires each commonwealth’s attorney to invite campus
     police chiefs to meetings of sexual assault response teams.
   
   –
HB 697, by Filler-Corn: Requires the governing board of each college or university to
     ask students to identify points of contact to be notified if the student experiences a
     mental health crisis. The policy may require students to waive certain privacy or
     confidentiality privileges.
   
   –
HB 852, by Delegate Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg: Makes it clear that an institution of
     higher education may require students to provide mental health records not only
     from their high school but also from any other college or university they attended.
   
   –
HB 853, also by Yost: Requires public community colleges to advise students, faculty
     and staff how to identify and help students exhibiting suicidal tendencies.
   
   –
HB 853, also by Yost: Provides that any licensed health professional treating a
     student may determine to withhold parental notification of a dependent student’s
     mental health treatment if such professional determines that the notification may
     result in substantial harm. Currently, only a physician or clinical psychologist could
     make such a determination.

   SB 623, by Sen. Chap Peterson, D-Fairfax: Requires public colleges and universities to
     have agreements with local mental health facilities to coordinate the care of students.
     The bill would help ensure that school officials are notified when a student is
     involuntarily committed or is discharged.
   
  
SB 624, also by Peterson: Requires public colleges and universities to alert parents
     whenever the institution receives notification from any source that a student may be
     suicidal, to the extent permitted by the federal law.

This CNS article was published by altdaily.com.