US colleges respond to Orlando tragedy

Colleges in the area and further afield try to reassure students

June 13, 2016
Map of Orlando
Source: iStock

With press reports suggesting that two victims of the weekend's deadly attack on a gay club in Orlando were students, universities in the US have been playing host to vigils, discussion and sadness.

A professor who used to teach in Florida shared his fears Sunday on Twitter:

He was among many in academe thinking about the 50 victims of Sunday morning's mass murder at a gay club in Orlando, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Only a minority have been identified but they include two who press reports have identified as students: Juan Ramon Guerrero, whose family members told the Associated Press that he recently started attending the University of Central Florida, and was very happy to be there, and Luis Velma, who worked at Universal Orlando and whom The Orlando Sentinel reported was studying at Seminole State College of Florida. Both Guerro and Velma were 22.

John Hitt, the University of Central Florida president, released a statement on Sunday – before victims started to be identified – in which he described how "painful, frightening, and infuriating" the attack on the club has been for many at the university, and how he expected many there to have connections to victims.

"In time, I expect we all will know someone affected. A friend. A sister. A partner. A co-worker. To the victims of this attack — and their loved ones and friends — I offer the sincere prayers and hopes of the entire UCF family," he wrote. "Earlier today, I extended to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer all of the university’s resources to help our community. To start, on Monday UCF will host a blood drive on campus. I hope you will join me there."

The university announced Sunday that it was providing additional counseling and police services in the wake of the shooting.

UCF police officers were among those who responded to the initial reports of shootings and a hostage situation at the club. A statement from the university said that no threats have been made against the university, but that police presence would be increased. Additional hours of counseling will also be provided by the university's counseling service.

The university's LGBTQ Services office also announced that it would be open all week for students to seek support.

Hitt's message to campus stressed his concern for gay, lesbian and transgender students and others who may feel particularly vulnerable in light of an attack on a social space for gay people, and one plenty of UCF students (to judge from comments on social media) have frequented. "While we are still learning about this attack, it appears that the shooter targeted the LGBTQ community. The UCF Creed calls on all of us to 'promote an open and supportive campus environment by respecting the rights and contributions of every individual'," Hitt wrote. "With our Creed in mind, I tell our LGBTQ students, faculty, staff, and alumni this: You are not alone. Your university stands with you."

Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College, said via email that "our security staff is on high alert and we have canceled a number of events for the next  couple of days. And we have prepared counseling and other resources."

Other Orlando colleges used social media to express concern and announced extra support for students.

 Students and others on many campuses outside of Florida also were also shaken by Sunday's news. The police department at Virginia Tech, which experienced a mass shooting in 2007, shared its reaction on Twitter.

Students at Virginia Tech held a vigil on Sunday night at the site of the memorial to those killed in 2007.

At the University of Redlands, students also gathered for a vigil.

Elsewhere, Sunday's tragedy is prompting professors to talk about their role in confronting homophobia. The killer in Orlando reportedly was offended when he saw two men kissing. Dani Blackman, a college instructor in Seattle, published an essay Sunday recalling a discussion with a student who had said he hated gay people.

The student apologised after Blackman confronted him. Writes Blackman: "No one's race or religion or sexuality should ever make them afraid to show who they are. We need to do better. We need to educate. The work cannot stop."

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