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VOL. 122 | NO. 77 | Friday, April 27, 2007

Lesson Learned: Only Way To Prevent a Virginia Tech Is to Loosen Those Lips

By Eric Smith

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Editor's Note: This article is part of a continuing series examining the Virginia Tech killing spree and its effects in Memphis.

On the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2005, Annette Brown was walking back to the accounting office on the University of Memphis campus and talking on her cell phone when she noticed a strange-looking man heading in the opposite direction.

Their eyes met as they passed and Brown felt chills.

She knew right away this was the same man she had seen on "America's Most Wanted," so Brown - though her heart was racing - calmly hung up and phoned U of M police.

She told them she had just spotted Peter Braunstein, a fugitive from New York, on the west side of campus. Within minutes, U of M police officer Jay Johnson was on the scene in his squad car. Johnson located the man and approached him cautiously.

When Braunstein realized he was being pursued, he stopped, pulled a knife out of his rucksack and repeatedly stabbed himself in the neck in an apparent suicide attempt. As Johnson moved in, he pepper sprayed Braunstein and subdued him.

Not surprisingly, the scene drew a crowd. Then it created a media frenzy as newspapers and television stations caught wind that the U of M police had just done something the New York Police Department (NYPD) couldn't do: apprehend an alleged rapist who was armed and on the lam.

Inquiring eyes ...

Who knows what would have happened if Brown wasn't so observant and if Johnson wasn't so persistent in identifying and tracking down Braunstein.

While this story is forgotten by many in Memphis because Braunstein never harmed anyone here except for himself, it represents the way campus safety is supposed to work: An alert student or staff member lets campus police know that something or someone is unusual. Police respond, determine if the suspect is a threat and act accordingly.

It happens all the time, and it's important to remember in light of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, where student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself last week.

Could that massacre have been prevented if someone - classmates, teachers, anyone - had notified university officials of his strange, anti-social behavior?

Perhaps it's not fair to question those who suspected Cho was not in his right mind but did nothing about it. After all, Braunstein was a wanted man whose photo was plastered all over the news after he had been identified in a Memphis blood-donation center two weeks earlier.

But Derek Myers, deputy director of campus safety at the U of M, said calling the police to warn them about any potentially dangerous situation is paramount to campus-wide safety and likely has prevented similar tragedies from occurring.

"That's what we want them to do with everything," Myers said. "Maybe the Virginia Tech thing will make people heed what we've always said, which is, 'Call us - it never hurts for us to check out whatever it is you think we need to know about.'

"Sometimes people don't call until after something has happened."

One step ahead

After a tragedy of Virginia Tech's magnitude, the calls indeed start pouring in to campus police stations. It's been that way at the U of M since the April 16 incident in Blacksburg, Va.

"All of a sudden they're telling you about everything," Myers said. "They're calling you for every guy that looked at them wrong at this point. We had to put in a lot of extra time last week answering a lot of questions and checking on a lot of what people perceived as a potential problem."

Myers said he expects the spike in calls to subside as soon as people settle back into their routines and as soon as the media latch on to the next headline.

What won't go away is how universities prepare for wide-scale acts of terror or disaster.

Because regardless of whatever successes or failures a university has experienced in managing violence on campus, schools across the country are re-examining their safety policies to prevent another Virginia Tech.

Time for some soul searching

Myers said the U of M already had been looking at its safety procedures, including the installment of large speakers placed around campus to issue any kind of warning - from what to do in case of natural disaster to where to go in case of violence.

"Now we need to get it and actually put it in place so we have a way to communicate campus-wide," Myers said.

This wouldn't replace the need for telephone trees or mass text or e-mail messaging, Myers added, but it would alert those who don't have access to electronic communications when the situation occurs.

"This is a more direct way of saying, 'Hey, we've got a problem, you've got to do this right now,'" he said.

Myers added that the project would be put out to bid soon. He said it would be easier and more economical to install than rewiring every building on campus with an elaborate public-address system.

"You put in a few of these units and you cover the entire campus pretty quickly," Myers said. "You simply control it all with software by clicking a button and telling it which warning you want to send out, whether it's a tornado warning or a severe thunderstorm warning or whatever it is you want to tell people."

Because the simple act of telling people can save lives.

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