LEXINGTON, Va. – Possibly besides tuition costs, the one issue that is often on the forefront for college students and their parents is campus safety.
Tragedies at the University of Virginia and the University of Idaho in 2022, where seven students were killed in separate attacks, only heightened the need for campuses to make students feel safe.
One example of a campus investing in safety is Virginia Military Institute, which is about to undergo a $13 million security upgrade.
That’s just one of the many ways they stand out when it comes to protecting cadets and staff, compared to college campuses. It could be a target at any time due to constant VIP visitors, including U.S. presidents, vice presidents and high-ranking military officials.
VMI police officers drill every month to protect the 1,700 cadets.
“We put them under what we call the pressure test. We want to put the hardest conditions in front of them, because if they’re going to make a mistake, we want them to make it in training,” said Michael Marshall, the VMI Chief of Police and President of the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.
Marshall has been in three active shooter situations and knows training is key.
“In my career, my 34-year career, I’ve heard people say, ‘It’ll never happen here.’ And things happen. We cannot operate under what I call the ‘hope plan.’ We hope it doesn’t happen here. We have to be very proactive,” Marshall said. “You have to train like you’re going to respond, because that’s what’s going to happen. Your body’s going to shut down, you’re gonna get tunnel vision and if you’re not training, you’re not going to know what to do.”
He says other college campuses in Virginia are not drilling as often as VMI.
“They are drilling. A lot of departments, they a drill as a team, their shift, they have individual training. We’re very fortunate because we’re a smaller department, so we were able to work schedules and bring the staffing in on a short notice,” Marshall said.
Something else unique is every police car has the same tools, so they are always ready. Those tools include what Marshall describes as the “latest and greatest.”
It started after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Marshall said they did self audit of the police department based on what law enforcement encountered that day.
“We decided how can we make it better? We’ve got to do something to remember the people that paid the ultimate sacrifice that day. They gave their life. Let’s do something proactive, instead of reactive,” the chief said.
Every police car has the following so they are always prepared:
- A bridging kit with a ram and bolt cutters to get through doors that are barricaded or chained.
- Soft shield for protection from gunfire.
- “Night angel” that can be thrown into a dark space to light it up, so officers don’t become a target if they are carrying a flashlight.
- Rifle and shotgun.
“We’re giving them what they need to succeed and go home safe,” said VMI First Sergeant Tyler Falls, who added he always has to come to work ready to take on the unimaginable.
“I would have to say as being a law enforcement officer we have to, that’s sort of our job. Of course we hope that doesn’t happen, but we’re also doing the people that we try to protect on campus a disservice if we’re not ready for that,” said Falls, who is on a special team that does more training so they can respond immediately. “The CERT team is for any active shooter. It’s going to be an extreme situation. It’s going to be a situation where we have to act, we can’t wait and that’s why we don’t like the SWAT team because a SWAT team, you have to wait [for].”
But it’s not just police that protect the Virginia Military Institute.
The most protected area is the barracks where cadets live. From cameras around the buildings, to a cadet guard room where they can see live video. The police chief says cadets are an extra set of eyes and ears, so if they see something suspicious coming, they can call 911.
We got to go inside the barracks-- a place TV cameras aren’t usually allowed. There’s an intercom system for announcements and cadets patrolling, looking for possible problems. The guard team watches over where students live.
“This is very unique here in Virginia. Citadel has one, but in Virginia, we’re the only school that has this security feature, which is an added feature for us for law enforcement, because they are definitely our extra eyes and ears,” Marshall said.
The chief constantly evaluates emergencies around the country for how he can better protect VMI. That includes asking for millions in security upgrades.
We asked him what kind of reaction other campus police chiefs have when they hear of a $13 million security upgrade.
“One said, ‘How did you pull that off, Mike?’ And what I shared, it’s an initiative that we all should be looking at looking at in this profession. A life is priceless.”
That upgrade includes new metal barriers that come out of the ground in strategic places across VMI to stop cars from driving onto post. The barriers can automated at certain times of the day or raised in an emergency with a cellphone.
You can see more of VMI’s safety plan by clicking here.
The chief is also working on a best practices document for other college campus police chiefs to utilize.
This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at SolutionariesNetwork.com.