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UVa mandates students complete active shooter training before classes

There’s a new requirement for incoming and returning University of Virginia students that must be completed before the start of the fall semester in a little more than two weeks.

Those who log into the school’s Student Information System will find an active attacker training and response module. In the wake of the November shooting that took the lives of three student-athletes and injured two others on Grounds, UVa is now asking students complete the module before the start of the academic year.

It’s not a one-time thing.

“Students will be required to complete the active attacker training and response module every two years,” UVa spokeswoman Bethanie Glover told The Daily Progress via email. “Safety awareness modules such as these, combined with other student orientation and related efforts on Grounds, play an important role in preparing our University community for a safe and successful new academic year.”

How well they prepare a community, though, is hard to measure, according to experts.

“Active shooter programs are not easily evaluated, but they are widely implemented,” William Pelfrey, criminal justice professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told The Daily Progress.

Training programs’ effectiveness are usually assessed after an incident not before, according to Pelfrey.

“There is no clarity on how effective active shooter training programs are,” he said. “Instead, what usually happens is a post-hoc assessment of an incident and determining whether the key pieces were present and if they worked or how well they worked.”

UVa had already adopted the “RUN HIDE FIGHT” protocol for active shooters before the November shooting. That model, developed by the FBI and used in schools and workplaces nationwide, encourages students to run when there is an active threat, only calling 911 once they are in a safe location; hide only if escape is not possible by blocking doors, avoiding windows and silencing cell phones; and fight only as a last resort if their lives are in danger.

Students, faculty and staff were urged to “RUN HIDE FIGHT” in a tweet by UVa Emergency Management at 10:42 p.m. on Nov. 13 after the killing of D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler while suspected shooter Christopher Jones was still on the run and the Charlottesville area was put on lockdown.

The message faced criticism on Grounds and off. Many responding online said they could not believe it was real. So many challenged the authenticity of the tweet, it prompted a Snopes fact check. A column in the Washington Post titled, “U-Va. students were told to ‘run, hide, fight.’ Gen-Z deserves better,” called “RUN HIDE FIGHT” the new “stop, drop and roll.”

But while the “RUN HIDE FIGHT” protocol has been criticized for coming across as clipped, naive, even twee, the new active attacker training and response module on the Student Information System comes with a trigger warning.

According to the student-run Cavalier Daily newspaper, the training was introduced “quietly.”

“I found out about the video through SIS when looking at classes,” Jackie Bond, a UVa student, told The Daily Progress.

While the paper reported that the module appeared online without any prior notice to students, an email was sent to students July 21 with a list of online education that must be completed by this coming Monday — and that list includes the training.

What the email did not mention was a seven-minute video that is included in the training that shows staged demonstrations of an active shooter situation.

That video opens with a trigger warning, according to those who have viewed it. The video repeats the “RUN HIDE FIGHT” protocol while also providing instruction on how those on Grounds can preempt a violent attack by reporting concerning behaviors.

Students quoted in the Cavalier Daily said they were triggered by “ depictions of violence so close to home.”

“Those are places that I go every day and to hear people screaming and reacting to a possible shooter on-Grounds, it triggered something in me,” third-year student Sofia Posadas is quoted saying. “It was pretty scary.”

Posadas also happens to be a communications lead for Students Demand Action at UVa, a group advocating for gun reform on Grounds and in the surrounding Charlottesville community.

Bond, another third-year, told The Daily Progress that she personally found the trainings beneficial.

“I do find these trainings somewhat helpful because they give me a feeling of preparedness,” Bond said. “Even though much of the information is common sense, it’s good to have something to look back on for guidance if you are ever in an active shooter situation.”

The UVa Police Department declined to comment to The Daily Progress, but Police Chief Tim Longo is quoted in the Cavalier Daily directly tying the new training to an increase in mass shootings in the U.S.

As of Friday, there have been 432 mass shootings in the U.S. to date this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. If the pace keeps up, the country is on track to eclipse the 648 total the archive reported last year.

On a local level, Charlottesville, like many cities, has seen a spike in gun violence in recent months. Charlottesville police were investigating five homicide cases within the first three months of the year, the highest number reported since 2017.

Gun violence in the Charlottesville area is the worst it’s ever been, according to Longo, who previously served as the city’s police chief.

Longo is quoted in the Cavalier Daily saying that despite how some students may feel the realistic depictions of active shooter situations shown in the training video do provide an effective way to relay information to students.

Pelfrey at VCU agreed with both Longo and Posadas. The trainings can be beneficial; they can also make students more uncomfortable in what is supposed to be a safe space. In fact, he called the latter the only real drawback of the training at all.

“The answer is absolutely it’s useful,” Pelfrey said. “There’s little downside to an active shooter training effort. The only real downside that I can see is potential fear among staff or students.”

However, the risk of these effects is offset by empowering students and staff, according to Pelfrey.

“I think that empowering staff and students and saying, ‘This is a risk, it’s a very, very low risk, but we’re going to get you prepared for that risk, even though we think it’s never going to happen,’” Pelfrey said, “I think that benefit outweighs any potential psychological risk of telling people there is a chance that a shooter could show up at your school.”


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