Campus safety and student well-being are in sharp focus following a deadly shooting at Texas A&M University-Commerce last week.
Already, university officials have announced stepped-up security efforts that include more around-the-clock monitoring of dorm entrances, increased police patrols and a safety audit.
Texas A&M-Commerce president Mark Rudin told the campus community that although the school has made a lot of progress in safety, officials should always aim to do better.
“We live in a world now where what happened on our campus can, unfortunately, happen anywhere,” he said in a letter announcing an updated action plan. “We have been diligent when it comes to safety and security, and we need to be proactive and constantly reassessing if we are doing enough.”
But what can public universities do to better secure residence halls where students expect to be safe?
Authorities say Jacques Dshawn Smith, 21, gained access to Pride Rock residence hall, where he was seen in the elevator about 1 a.m. Feb. 3. No evidence of forced entry was found in the dorm room where his ex-girlfriend Abbaney Matts, 20, and her sister Deja Matts, 19, were found dead later that morning.
Smith and Abbaney Matts were not students at the school; Deja Matts was a freshman there. Abbaney and her 2-year-old son, who was injured during the incident, stayed the night with Deja after driving her back to the campus late Sunday, according to family.
Facilities at public universities and colleges are generally open to students, staff and visitors during business hours as state institutions. But residence halls tend to have more limited access by design.
Most dorms have a controlled entrance that’s accessed with an electric card, monitored by a person, or both.
Authorities haven’t said how Smith was able to enter the residence hall. University officials declined to answer questions about specific security measures at Pride Rock.
“We cannot speak to the specific circumstances surrounding this targeted incident on the campus as this is an active investigation that multiple law enforcement agencies are still conducting,” Rudin said in a statement to The Dallas Morning News.
Texas A&M-Commerce’s 2019 security report noted that exterior doors to most on-campus residence halls are equipped with electronic card access that is connected to a centralized software system with 24-hour recording.
Doors at most residence halls at Texas A&M University are equipped with electronic card access. Officials haven’t said what specific measures were in place at Pride Rock where two women were killed on Feb. 3 (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
Doors at most residence halls at Texas A&M University are equipped with electronic card access. Officials haven’t said what specific measures were in place at Pride Rock where two women were killed on Feb. 3 (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP)(Juan Figueroa)
Front desks at the dorms had been staffed from 8 a.m. to midnight but will now be monitored at all hours. Interior doors at the residence halls are key-locked with deadbolts and have peepholes.
Dorm residents are prohibited from propping or forcefully pulling open any door at a residence hall, according to a university handbook. Students may be subject to disciplinary action for doing so.
Other area universities listed similar security systems in place at residence halls, according to their annual security reports.
The University of Texas at Arlington, for example, has a card-access system at each residence hall entrance as well as to the areas where the student rooms are. Some residence halls have rooms that also require an access card to enter.
The University of North Texas in Denton noted that the residence halls have electric-card access and are supervised by trained staff who lock doors on a schedule and ensure that guests are escorted by a dorm resident. At the University of Texas at Dallas, dorm doors are generally unlocked during the day but the lobbies are monitored by staff who check in guests.
Colleges and universities are required to release annual security reports under a federal law named after Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her dorm in 1986. Though the residence hall had automatic locks, her attacker was able to gain access to the dorm because doors had been propped open with pizza boxes.
Schools must constantly reassess security measures, particularly after a tragic incident like Monday’s deadly shooting, said Abigail Boyer, associate executive director of the Clery Center. And that includes focusing on ongoing efforts to educate students about why safety measures must be followed, she said.
“We are a society that wants to be polite and let the people behind us in,” Boyer said. “But that can be dangerous. That’s why the prevention work that we do to focus on minimizing safety risks are just as important as focusing on facility needs.”
The Clery Center is a nonprofit that helps schools nationwide with training and guidance on how to comply with the federal law. Representatives from the center will be in Fort Worth next month working with higher education officials on various safety issues such as designing and implementing prevention and response efforts to dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.
Just two days after the shooting, Texas A&M-Commerce announced an updated safety action plan for the school. It includes increased security training for the campus community, expanding a campaign to increase participation in warning systems and a safety app and upcoming focus groups to hear student concerns about safety.
The school will also ask the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service to audit the university’s safety-related plans, policies, procedures and facilities.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M-Commerce officials have promoted the school’s expanded crisis counseling services for students and staff and brought in therapy dogs to help provide comfort. School officials offered up similar services in October when a gunman killed two people at an off-campus homecoming party.
The university made mental-health awareness a priority in recent years following the death of a popular former campus president by suicide. Efforts have included expanding access to counseling — including a 24-hour crisis intervention hot line — peer training and education campaigns to remove stigmas associated with those seeking help.
When violent events happen on or near a school, officials should be on alert for signs of post traumatic stress disorder or depression — not just in the immediate aftermath but weeks later, said Dr. Carol North, a crisis psychiatrist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute.
That’s when symptoms start manifesting. Warning signs could be a person who is jumpy around loud noises or who displays numbing responses, she said.
North has worked with and studied thousands of survivors of major disasters and mass shootings in recent years. She found that fewer than half of survivors from such events develop lasting psychiatric disorders.
But she also found that it’s not uncommon for symptoms to develop even when a person wasn’t directly involved in an incident, particularly if someone witnessed a violent act, its aftermath or if a friend or loved one was in harm’s way.
Having a robust, welcoming support system in place long term helps those impacted feel comfortable seeking help at the pace that’s right for them, she said.
“The thing that people tell us that helps them more than anything is social support — being able to be with and talk to their loved ones, people they trust, people they are comfortable with,” she said.