As President of the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement and Chief of Police at the College, Don Challis is working to address national campus safety issues and answer the questions that have arisen in light of the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech.
p. The shootings, the deadliest in American history, prompted universities across the country to examine their policies and practices regarding safety and security.
p. In Virginia, where as many as 500,000 students, faculty, staff and visitors populate college campuses every day, the ability to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies remains a foremost concern of campus law enforcement across the state.
“We need to examine what was done right and what was done wrong in handling the incident and train our officers in disaster planning from the perspective of what happens on a college campus,” Challis said.
p. Challis, who is originally from Iowa and now lives in James City County with his wife and two daughters, has worked at the College for four years. Previously, he was an officer at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
p. As a student at the University of Iowa, Challis worked as a security officer to help pay for his tuition. It was not long before he applied for a job as a police officer and was soon promoted to sergeant.
p. He says he enjoys working with the “unique, driven and smart” student body at the College and coming to work on the historic campus every day, where his duties as an officer are for the most part the same as those of local police.
p. In July, Challis was the main speaker at a meeting of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, organized by Gov. Tim Kaine to investigate the shootings and what can be done to make campuses safer.
p. The panel included former Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. Gerald Massengill, former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, an FBI agent and a child psychiatrist. Also on the panel were those with knowledge relating to the shootings, the medical history of the perpetrator, Seung-Hui Cho, and the school’s response.
p. “There is always the concern that if something had been done differently, less bodies would be dead,” Challis said.
p. Although many have criticized the school for not closing down or going into lockdown mode immediately after the first shooting, Challis said that Tech handled the situation well and that lockdowns are impractical because most college campuses extend over hundreds of acres of land and include dozens of buildings.
In the Virginia Tech massacre, campus police responded to the first shooting within eight minutes and officers from the Blacksburg Police and Virginia State Police were at the scene when the second shooting took place in Norris Hall.
p. “We’re sitting here four months after the fact. Tech had to make these decisions in a matter of minutes. It is difficult to apply what is needed now relative to what was needed in April. What they did instinctively we now have to do routinely,” Challis said, referring to emergency notification and crime prevention.
p. “In any incident we have to anticipate if something is attached to it. There have been murders on college campuses before, but I don’t know of any where two hours later the problem resurfaces like it did at Tech,” he said.
p. Challis said that one thing schools across the country can learn from Tech is the importance of communication between students and the administration.
p. “Something like this could happen on any college campus,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of crime or criminal mischief at William and Mary, but we need to be forward-thinking nonetheless.”