Wise college police say small campuses easier to protect

Stephen Igo • Apr 17, 2007 at 11:24 AM

WISE - An occasional student armed with nothing more potentially lethal than beer is about as bad as it gets at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, the cozy campus that is home to fewer than 2,000 students tucked in a bucolic enclave near downtown Wise.

"Underage drinking. Underage possession of alcohol. A little petty theft or vandalism. That's pretty typical for what we deal with around here, and very little of that," said UVa-Wise Director of Public Safety Steve McCoy.

There are eight campus police officers keeping the 24/7 peace on campus, and compared to much larger colleges and universities, peaceful and even downright boring is good.

"Typical college prank stuff," McCoy said. "We handle it just like we do anything else. If they need to be arrested, so be it. We can toss (non-students) off for trespassing if they're causing trouble and ban them from college property. Incidents just don't happen often. I sure am glad I'm talking to you this way, and not like the (security) chief at (Virginia) Tech. My thoughts and prayers go out to him."

There are two ways in and two ways out of the UVa-Wise campus, McCoy said, and just five student dorms. With just 2,000 students, McCoy said he can't imagine trying to get a security handle on a 2,600-acre spread and 26,000 students that is Virginia Tech.

"We have seized weapons. Not a lot, but we have," he said. "Part of it is we might receive a tip or anonymous complaint that such and such has a weapon. Our policy is a firearm can't be possessed by anyone on campus. We don't even honor concealed weapons permits here."

The few weapons seized from students during his 15 years at UVa-Wise mostly involve an old family shotgun and a yearning to take in the local squirrel season, McCoy said. Even so, the policy is strictly enforced.The same policy is enforced at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. A totally commuter school with no dorms, except for a few night classes the folks at MECC lock up and go home every day.

Still MECC has had its share of bomb threats and the like, and has a security force keeping an eye on things at all times.

"While no one is ever fully prepared for a tragedy of (Virginia Tech's) magnitude, we have in place procedures to respond to emergencies," said MECC Vice President for Finance and Administration Patti Cantrell.

Those procedures include a phone in every classroom, use of fire alarms to evacuate buildings, emergency call boxes in each parking lot directly linked to campus security, designated staff for each building for personal notification of emergencies, and the use of e-mail and the college's Web site to help communicate with faculty, staff and students.

This year MECC also set up a text messaging system and has encouraged students to sign up for immediate notifications.

Cantrell said three campus officers attend public safety training every year at Berea College in Kentucky, and eight college personnel have community emergency response team training.

Up the road at UVa-Wise, McCoy and his seven-man force have an emergency preparedness manual to guide their crisis management actions. The manual has been in the process of being updated since October, primarily with a pandemic in mind. McCoy said his office is also awaiting approval to ink a mutual aid pact with Wise County's Emergency Operations Center. The college has long had mutual aid pacts with the Wise Police Department, Wise County Sheriff's Office and other local emergency responders.The new pact works both ways, McCoy said. "In the event of a disaster, we would oblige them with equipment if they need it and we have it. And things like food, shelter, water and like that," he said.

If the unthinkable should ever happen such as at Virginia Tech on Monday, McCoy predicted no delay in implementing one of the first courses of action at UVa-Wise.

"Lockdown. We would definitely have a lockdown," he said.

And the college recently installed digital 3-D cameras to provide constant surveillance of all parking lots and other open areas, he said.

But perhaps the best security items for UVa-Wise are its size and location, he said. Everybody tends to get to know everyone else on a 2,000-student campus.

"That's a good thing. The size of our college is a major, major asset. With two entrances coming in and two entrances leaving, that can be easily monitored. Five residences of their small size is a tremendous asset," McCoy said.

"I don't know how you can totally eliminate the risk. You just take the precautions you can and thank God we live where we do," McCoy said. "My thoughts and prayers are with the people at Tech, but I thank God we are where we call home, too."

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