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    SOS protects students from campus violence

    Loud popping sounds and screams shatter the silence of a warm fall day, confusion turns to panic and lives will forever be changed – there is an armed assailant loose on campus.

    This might sound like a bad dream or a snippet from a newscast, but is increasingly becoming reality, as mass casualty shootings have recently become prevalent in the collegiate landscape.

    Since last year’s shootings on Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg, Va., university administrators across the country have scrambled to piece together preventative and proactive programs designed to circumvent such tragedies.

    The Supporting Our Students initiative was created at UNF last fall under the leadership of Dr. Maurcio Gonzalez, vice president for Student and International Affairs, as a central reporting structure to respond to situations of potential harm to students or others, with a goal of neutralizing campus violence before
    it happens.

    SOS is a campus-wide initiative to identify and intervene when students exhibit behavior that can affect the health and welfare of another student, as well as threatening or harmful behavior that can impact the campus community, said Dr. Terri DiNuzzo, director of the Counseling Center and chair of the SOS team.

    “When someone doesn’t feel heard, they feel misunderstood,” DiNuzzo said. “Nobody cares that they’re having trouble or that they’re frustrated. It escalates and it results in violence. We’re trying to break the momentum of this process.”

    The goal of the committee is to ensure the safety and security of the campus community while maintaining the dignity, welfare and privacy of the student who exhibits signs of distress – things like behavioral and mood changes or a growing propensity toward violence, DiNuzzo said. Any situation brought forth to the SOS team would be investigated to ensure accuracy of information while maintaining confidentiality, she said.

    “I hope students trust us enough to be able to call, that we will abide by confidentiality and protect and ensure the privacy and dignity of everyone we’re assessing in every situation we’re investigating,” DiNuzzo said.

    SOS relies on the cooperation of faculty, staff and students in reporting situations in which students might exhibit what they define as “behaviors of concern.” Traits such as isolation, changes in mood or behavior, withdrawal from friends or activities, increased absences, irritability and abuse of alcohol or drugs are just a few common causes of concern that SOS handles, in addition to violent behavior and threats.

    “We’ve had some referrals where there’s been an e-mail exchange between the student and professor, where one student went way off from the conversation and showed some tendencies toward violence,” Foxworth said. “None of this is meant to be punitive by any means; it’s more to direct that person to get back on track and get the help they need.”

    Should something escalate to actual violence, Foxworth said UPD has a plan in place.

    UPD hosts an active shooter workshop for faculty and staff in which participants are shown a DVD showing how to effectively manage emotions and develop an effective mindset should an on campus shooting spree break out, and in some cases disarm and apprehend the shooter.

    In addition, UPD officers have extensive training in handling such incidents, training usually reserved for members of SWAT teams and other police special units.

    “We went to several SWAT commanders in the area and asked them to build a customized program,” Foxworth said. “We ended up with a three-day program put on by the Jacksonville Beach SWAT team that introduced our officers to a much more hands-on situation.”

    The tactical training focused more on entries and response, and all UPD officers have been through the training, Foxworth said.

    Even if it’s not a situation where there is concern about threat or danger, if someone is in distress, SOS wants to intervene in a timely manner before it becomes a crisis, DiNuzzo said. She also stressed a student-first approach in which any information has the same level of security as a counseling or medical record.

    Vice president of Administration and Finance and chair of the crisis management team Shari Shuman echoed DiNuzzo’s sentiment.

    “It’s all confidential,” Shuman said, “I couldn’t even tell you as the head of the crisis management team the name of any person that they’ve ever even looked at. I know of situations and examples to show that it’s successful but we have a highly ethical and respectful group that want to respect the privacy of the students and no one else is involved except for the student.”

    E-mail Jason Yugartis at [email protected].

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