LA GRANDE — A pair of recent killings on or near college campuses have hit close to home for Eastern Oregon college leaders.
Four University of Idaho students were found dead in a rental house near the Moscow, Idaho, campus, and a 22-year-old University of Virginia student is suspected of killing three football players and wounding two other people as they returned by bus from a field trip. Both acts of violence appear to have occurred Sunday, Nov. 13.
Blue Mountain Community College President Mark Browning said the attack on the University of Idaho students felt close to home.
“I’m a Vandal,” he said.
He earned his master’s in public administration at University of Idaho.
“It makes your heart just sink for those families, for the students, the friends of those kids, their classmates, the teachers who interacted with them,” Browning said. “That campus will never be the same.”
Lacy Karpilo, vice president for student affairs at Eastern Oregon University, La Grande, expressed a similar sentiment
“It is hard to imagine the pain and loss those university communities are experiencing,” she said.
Police in Moscow, Idaho, said they have not identified a suspect or found a weapon in the weekend slayings. Police continue to believe the attack was targeted but have walked back a previous statement that there was no threat to the public. Autopsies have been completed and the results show that all of the students were stabbed to death.
“Investigators are working to follow up on all the leads and identify a person of interest,” Moscow Police Chief James Fry said at a news conference. “We do not have a suspect at this time, and that individual is still out there. We cannot say that there is no threat to the community.”
Browning described the slayings as a “deeply personal crime.”
In the University of Virginia attack, a prosecutor said a witness told police the student suspected of opening fire on fellow students targeted specific victims.
“Anytime those happen at a national level, or anywhere related to colleges and universities, it always sparks a conversation for us internally to be aware,” said Eastern Oregon Vice President for University Advancement Tim Seydel.
Seydel said university leadership always reminds staff to watch for others — whether faculty, staff or students — who might be showing signs of distress.
“We oftentimes get questions about what we should be looking for. What are the issues there?” he said. “And while you can never predict that, we always encourage people to reach out. Particularly if you see students having difficulty. If you see something, say something, that kind of an approach.”
Seydel added that all threats at EOU are taken seriously and immediately reported to the La Grande Police Department.
“And again, the important thing — if somebody makes a threat, it’s important to track that down and find out what the heck’s going on,” he said.
Preparation and preventionThe InterMountain Education Service District in August held a school safety summit in Pendleton, and Blue Mountain participated in that. Browning said heightened awareness about campus is part of college work and life.
“Really, in the walk of Uvalde, we’re all a little more hyper sensitive to what’s happening,” Browning said, referring to the mass shootings and murder on May 24 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Browning said safety is “something we work on all the time.”
Blue Mountain has safety protocols in place at all of its campus, and when there is a report about a situation on a campus or a threat, local law enforcement gets the call to respond. But still, he emphasized, there is no way of knowing where a threat will come from.
“That’s the scary part,” Browning said. “We train, we prepare, we have protocols in place. But you just never know where stuff will come from.”
The Clery Act is a federal law requiring all universities to report serious incidents on campus, from underage drinking to sexual assault, Seydel explained, and EOU reviews all of those occurrences at least annually.
“We go through and look at everything, and we test our systems on a regular basis,” he said. “And then every couple years we sit down and do an intentional walkthrough of a scenario and literally go through if we had an emergency take place, what would we do?”
Those scenarios are not just about violence, for example, Seydel said, but also for a fire or flood and other events that require responses that have long-term implications for the university.
“So if one of our buildings or one of our residence halls caught on fire or something, or one of our academic buildings was damaged somehow, how do you manage around that?” he said. “Where would you have classes at? Where would the people who had offices in those buildings be relocated?”
When it comes to potential on-campus violence, he noted that easy and open access on university, community college and school campuses, including EOU, is changing, with a move toward using key card access and similar measures to make it more difficult to access buildings.
“They put some protocols in place that, while inconvenient, made sense,” Seydel said.
The realitySeydel said Eastern Oregon University through the years has had situations where there were “credible threats,” including one case that involved a student who had some behavioral mental health issues.
When that happened, Seydel said, EOU staff alerted the La Grande Police Department, which brought in “all kinds of other resources to get the evaluation” as well as the Oregon State Police.
“Usually, a lot of times you see these things and there’s a history there when they’re making the threats,” he said.
What’s more worrisome is “when they don’t have the history and we have no knowledge of it beforehand,” he said.
“That’s the scary part,” Seydel said. “That’s the part that should give us all concern, can somebody just walk into the university, well, any one of our buildings or into a school or any public space and do some real damage? I mean, we all live with that fear.”
Violence on college campuses presents a predicament for community colleges, Browning said, which pride themselves on having open campuses with numerous access points.
“There is no way you can completely secure everything,” he said.
He also said BMCC is a tight-knit campus akin to a family. While the faculty and administration might squabble, when something happens they band together. And anymore, this kind of violence, he said, is not about if it happens, but when.
“But you hope that day is a long way down the road,” he said.
— The Associated Press and East Oregonian managing editor Phil Wright contributed to this report.