Making Campuses Safer

General manager Steve Alcairo holds an HK USP 9mm handgun while being interviewed at High Bridge Arms Inc. in San Francisco,
General manager Steve Alcairo holds an HK USP 9mm handgun while being interviewed at High Bridge Arms Inc. in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. Anxious parents reeling in the wake the Connecticut school shooting are fueling sales of armored backpacks for children emblazoned with Disney and Avengers logos, as firearms enthusiasts stock up on assault rifles nationwide amid fears of imminent gun control measures. At Amendment II, sales of children's backpacks and armored inserts are up 300 percent. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

President Obama's gun control proposals faces steep political hurdles but I, like many college administrators, believe it is urgent that we renew the debate. Every time I hear of another shooting, the thought invariably crosses my mind: Could it happen on my campus? The answer is 'Yes.' But with the ambitious steps President Obama is proposing, perhaps now we can turn the tide.

Of the 23 executive orders on the table, at least two will have a direct impact on higher education: our on-campus emergency response activities and how we address issues of mental health. For many campuses, these issues have been on our radar since 2007, when the mass shooting at Virginia Tech brought the issue to our doorstep. At Union College, the safety of our campus community has always been important but Virginia Tech moved the needle for us in terms of our mindset and in the way we prepared ourselves for what we hope will never happen. Less than four months after the shootings, we had intensified up our emergency policies, added sirens and loudspeakers and launched a much more robust program for all of our campus constituents -- students, faculty and staff. We've added regular table-top drills with local police agencies and we bring in specialized trainers, the most recent, to help us in the event of an active shooter on campus. We work with campus offices and departments in preparing customized emergency responses, ranging from 'Who do I call in an emergency?' to the very basic, 'How do I exit this particular office safely?'

But emergency response is just the half of it. Mental health and counseling is the other. At Union, an intervention team, drawn from offices across the campus, work together to 'join the dots' between safety and signs of distress. Our counseling center provides 24/7, 365 days a year on-call coverage for mental health emergencies, making sure students get the help they need. We have developed printed and online resources for faculty and staff to help them point distressed students in the right direction.

Even our students have stepped to the plate, developing a Union College chapter of Active Minds, a national network of students passionate about mental health advocacy and education. Another group, UCOPE (Union College Organization of Peer Educators) conducts meetings, hosts outreach activities and meets with students who might be struggling with the type of issues young people face in college.

The question still lingers, though: is it enough? Probably not. The question then becomes: so what do we do about that? For me, it starts with gun control.

We need to embrace and support a ban on assault weapons. While I respect the right to bear arms, gun laws are meant to protect and not cause harm to others. In recent years, there's been a marked increase in the use of assault weapons for the sole purpose of inflicting harm to the greatest amount of people. The sites of some of worst tragedies are seared into our memory. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Tucson. And the latest, Newtown. As part of the senior leadership of a college that more than 2,100 students call home for a good portion of the year, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are advocating for laws that will protect our institution and other institutions like ours. We would do a disservice to the country if we did not speak up against weapons that could be used in our backyard. This is not about taking away rights but about protecting the masses.

However, coupled with gun control is the issue of mental health, which needs to be at the forefront of conversations in Washington, in Albany, in our communities and on our campuses. Every year, more and more students enroll in college with self-identified mental health issues. It has impacted how higher education operates and how we serve and protect students.

Where do we begin? With discourse. Lots of it. We start conversations about the appropriateness of guns and conversations about mental health. And most importantly, we start conversations about how and where the two issues intersect. President Obama has set the wheels in motion. It's not going to be easy but the steps he is proposing should make our country and our campuses safer and saner.