Rochester Institute of Technology's announcement late last year that some of its security officers will have access to firearms raised a few eyebrows. Maybe that's because college campuses, despite some recent eruptions of violence, still conjure up tranquil images of students hunkered down in libraries. The thought of guns on campuses makes many people shudder.
But RIT's decision is hardly a milestone in public safety; the college is part of a trend. The horrific mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April of 2007, which left 32 people dead, forever changed administrators' attitudes about security on the country's college campuses.
Many colleges and universities throughout New York and the nation reevaluated their public safety policies. Most beefed up their security staff, often transitioning from private firms to police academy-trained forces. And many of their officers carry firearms, among other weapons.
The Atlantic recently cited a US Justice Department report showing that the overwhelming majority of public colleges and universities — 92 percent — have sworn and armed campus officers. And about 40 percent of private schools have similarly equipped security forces.
Sometime this year, RIT will join their ranks and train some of its public safety officers on the use of firearms, though they won't carry them, says RIT spokesperson Bob Finnerty. Currently, they don't even carry stun guns.
"The only time the firearms will come out is when there is an active shooter," Finnerty says.
RIT officials made the decision based on their review of FBI data showing that 120 people were victims of gun violence on college campuses between 2000 and 2013, he says. But once an active shooter was confronted by a trained and armed officer, he says, no more innocent people were killed.
Cutting emergency response time was another factor in the decision, Finnerty says.
Though the Monroe County Sheriff's Office and the State Police would respond to an emergency at RIT involving a shooter, he says, outside agencies are not as familiar with the campus as the school's security staff, especially if it's at night or during an event.
"It's a big place," Finnerty says. "This is a mini city. On any given day there are over 20,000 people here."
And RIT's security guards are required to learn American Sign Language, since the National Technical Institute for the Deaf is one of the school's colleges, serving a sizable population of deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Having the right communications skills is imperative in an emergency, Finnerty says.
RIT was quick to point to the State University of New York's public safety measures when it announced its change in protocol. On the heels of the Virginia Tech shooting, SUNY's chancellor had all of the SUNY colleges, community colleges, and universities conduct a thorough review of their violence and emergency preparedness policies and procedures, says Jason Maitland, director of campus security at Finger Lakes Community College.
The directive led to a transition from a mishmash of security forces of varying skills and training to standardized campus peace officers.
The State Department of Criminal Justice Services sets the officers' training guidelines, Maitland says, and for the most part, the campus officers have the same training and arrest powers as municipal police officers.
"A peace officer only has jurisdiction on the college campuses," he says. "And there are some limitations when it comes to search warrants."
Maitland says that FLCC's officers went through reality-based training using simulations of emergency situations.
"It's pretty extensive and stressful," he says.
Firearms carried by Monroe Community College's peace officers are visible in holsters at officers' sides. And officers also carry batons and pepper spray.
The issuing of firearms was not done in isolation, SUNY officials say. Gregory Sammons, vice president for student affairs at Alfred State, says that his school conducts annual emergency drills to test the ability of faculty, staff, and students to follow procedures and find shelter.
If Alfred had a real emergency involving a shooter, Sammons says, a mass notification system called RAVE Alert would be activated involving text messages, phones, e-mail blasts, digital signs, and outdoor warning sirens.
FLCC's Maitland says that the decision by senior officials to equip peace officers with firearms was not made in a vacuum, either. Students, staff, and faculty participated in a variety of ways, he says, over a long period of time. MCC reported a similar process, and RIT's Finnerty says that parents responded positively to the decision to make guns available to officers.
Maitland says that there is increased awareness that colleges and universities are often the center of many communities and activities.
"We're open to a lot of people who come and go freely," he says.
SUNY Geneseo's Robert Bonfiglio, vice president for student and campus life, says that the college's peace officers were armed in 2007 without controversy.
"When the police were armed, the reaction from the students and parents was 'We understand,' and it hasn't been a topic of discussion here," he says.
But not all higher education institutions in the Rochester region have armed their security staff. And not everyone agrees that it's a good idea, either.
Nazareth College's security officers, for example, do not carry or have access to firearms. Officials there say they just don't see a need.
And data cited in the Atlantic article suggests that college campuses are muscling up at a time when the violent crime rate on college campuses is dropping. Whether that's a result of increased security measures is unclear.
Some critics say that arming campus officers could eventually lead to students and faculty carrying guns on campuses. At the moment, New York State law forbids that, with few exceptions.
"Campus carry" bills were introduced in 15 states in 2015, according to the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, and a bill was signed in Texas. A fierce fight to allow guns on college and university campuses is currently under way in Florida.
Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, says that she doesn't expect legislation like this to get traction in New York.
"We're not Texas," she says. "But it's an alarming trend."
Mixing college students, high alcohol consumption, and guns is dangerous, she says.
And she notes that the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus cites suicide as the second leading cause of death for college-age young adults. On average, 1,100 college students commit suicide each year, and suicide attempts involving guns in general are fatal about 90 percent of the time.
Barrett says that she understands why some people believe that arming campus security officers may provide extra protection for students in rare instances. But she says that she's skeptical of the argument that armed officers will be able to stop shooters.
Even if they are trained, she says, there's no guarantee that they're going to be successful, and "bringing more guns into the mix is not good."