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Safety Spin

From VCU to VT, the spinning realities of campus safety.

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Parallels, it seems, are everywhere. Not the distance between Richmond and Blacksburg, but in a common existence. As they huddle in the hallway at the Siegel Center, four freshmen, all girls, embrace, mascara running, considering the what ifs. They had a friend, Mike, who lives in West Ambler Johnston, the dorm where the first two shootings took place. He is OK, thankfully, but the girls were worried. He was unreachable by phone for much of the day.

It suddenly occurs to one of them. One of their friends, a Hokie, visited this year and commented on the tight security of the VCU dorm. At Tech, the friend bragged, they're free to roam without scanning IDs and the approval of security guards.

"I used to be annoyed with the security at the dorm. I used to hate it," says Casey McHenry, a VCU freshman from Virginia Beach. "Now I'm glad we have it."

When they were in high school, choosing colleges, safety issues weren't even on the radar for incoming Hokies. It's always a consideration for VCU freshman, of course, by virtue of being an urban institution in an inner city with the highest per capita murder rate in Virginia. Throw in the Taylor Behl case a year ago and watch parents sweat.

It's the kind of thing that has a roomful of Virginia Tech alumni shaking their heads in disbelief. A day after the shootings, April 17, in the cramped offices of the Richmond Chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association off Parham Road, the alums are meeting and trying to figure out how to soothe the fears of incoming freshmen. There's a collective head-shaking: How absurd that anyone needs to be convinced of Tech's serenity and safety. Alas, the spinning has begun.

They discuss strategy and talking points. Someone mentions gathering crime statistics, historically almost nil, and contacting incoming Hokies armed with data that counters the, um, 32 murders last week.

"Instead of like addressing the crime rate, you might want to spin it so you're like, this is an isolated case," says alum Nathan Gardner, a mechanical engineer. Under so much scrutiny, another chimes in that Virginia Tech will soon be über-safe. "Probably, there is not going to be a safer college campus in the world,"  another man adds.

Plans to e-mail some 900 high school seniors with offers to attend Tech are already under way,  says Jean Garrett, a microbiologist for HCA. They want to make sure incoming underclassmen understand that what they see on TV isn't the real Tech.

"There is an absolute sense of peace the minute you get there," says Scott Heiry, an IT manager who graduated from Tech in 1995.

Of course, that peace is being re-evaluated today. At VCU, serenity and peace aren't really the buzzwords, and perhaps for good reason. At each dormitory, says university spokeswoman Pamela Lepley, there is a security guard on duty 24 hours a day. Every student must have an ID card to get in, or be signed in by someone who resides in the dorm. In addition to 78 sworn campus police officers — one of the largest campus police forces in the country — the university employs more than 200 security guards to work both its Monroe Park and MCV campuses.

McHenry, the VCU freshman, isn't complaining. S

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