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Hope and safety after Virginia Tech

This has been a heartbreaking and difficult time for higher education. The Virginia Tech tragedy that saddened the world also caused students, families, and the public to question the security and emergency preparedness of campuses nationwide.

While we at Southern Oregon University mourned the victims of a horrific tragedy, we also responded to numerous inquiries. How do we intervene when students seem unstable or threatening? Do we have an emergency plan? Can we keep the campus safe? Can we ensure such a tragedy won't happen here?

Sadly, we also experienced a minor drama here when a student misled campus vigil participants about her connection to the Virginia massacre. That incident led to further inquiries regarding our policies on student integrity and codes of conduct.

At SOU, we work hard to ensure that the campus is a safe, secure environment for students, faculty, and staff. We have an emergency procedures plan and Emergency Procedures Manual, which we review and update regularly. In the residence halls, resident assistants are trained to recognize concerns and respond to emergencies.

SOU is equipped with blue light emergency telephones; we have campus public safety officers on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; and we're connected to the 911 emergency system. We conduct periodic drills with the Ashland police and fire departments, as well as with the Jackson County Health Department. We work closely with the APD to keep our students and campus safe while promoting positive, healthy relationships with the community. APD officers and SOU professionals who work closely with SOU students meet regularly.

The university also takes pride in creating a warm, supportive campus environment conducive to teaching and learning. Faculty and staff know our students individually and work with them closely. Both Counseling Services and the Student Health and Wellness Center educate students regarding responsible, legal consumption of alcohol; avoidance of high-risk behaviors; and duties to uphold the law and honor university rules and regulations.

If we see that a student appears to be struggling with emotional or academic problems, we intervene as appropriate. In issues regarding student conduct, we follow policies and procedures outlined in the student handbook. When necessary, the vice president for student affairs and his staff administer disciplinary policies and procedures. We take seriously our duties to protect students from harm, hold students accountable to community standards and protect their privacy.

We believe the university has a role not only in educating students academically, but also in helping them become responsible citizens. SOU has a student body of both traditional-aged and older students. For many of our younger students, we contribute to their personal development as they become more independent and move fully into adulthood. Regardless of their age, when students make mistakes, we endeavor to help them recover from those mistakes, learn from them, and move forward with their lives.

However, a campus is, first and foremost, a place for education. Our primary commitment is to maintain the campus as a free zone in which ideas can be exchanged and learning can occur. We prepare for emergencies; we create a supportive community. Our major mission is to provide opportunities for students to increase their knowledge, develop their skills and acquire the experience to be successful in their careers and throughout their lives.

We hold high standards for everyone in our campus community — students, faculty, and staff. The SOU campus is a very safe place to study, work, and live.

Nonetheless, no university is immune from the dangers found throughout our society. We cannot "lock down" the campus or screen every student for emotional stability. We cannot demand that every student be a pillar of honesty and integrity. We can only provide doors to a quality education and encourage students along paths to success — as students and as members of society.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech caused many of us to reflect on the complexities and mysteries of the human experience, on the ways in which our apparently solid worlds can be overturned. The events caused us to reach out with compassion and sorrow to people 3,000 miles away.

And, at SOU, these events also caused us to look inward, to ensure we are meeting the significant responsibilities of a university in a complex world, and to reaffirm our commitments to educate students as well as to protect, guide and, when necessary, hold them accountable to our community standards.

I assure you, our commitments remain strong.

Dr. Mary Cullinan is president of Southern Oregon University.