Changes on Campus: A New Memorial

Fifty years after the UT Tower shooting, a new memorial brings some closure to survivors.

For just the second time on record, the University of Texas at Austin stopped the tower clock on Aug. 1, 2016. It remained that way – arms paused at 11:48 until that time the next morning.

It was at 11:48 a.m., 50 years ago, that a sniper began firing from the tower onto the campus below. The pausing of the clock is part of a ceremony to honor the victims of that shooting.

The late morning of Aug. 1, 2016 was a lot like that day in 1966. It was hot. The sky was bright blue. The campus wasn’t crowded – but students in summer school were making their way around.

Students who have heard about the UT-Austin tower shooting have different levels of understanding about what happened:

“Before I got here, I didn’t know anything about the shooting,” Brenton Galley says.

“I don’t know much about the details I just know that there was one,” Jennifer Zvonek says. “I’m assuming that they were more strict on their safety regulations after that.”

Only one – Kailey Moore – knew that there had been a permanent memorial to the shooting.

“I don’t feel like I knew until maybe my sophomore year,” Moore says. “The original memorial used to be right over there under this tree kind of hidden.”

That memorial – a rock with a plaque on it – is now gone. It’s been replaced with a more than 6-foot-tall pink granite boulder that lists the names of the people killed by the shooter.

The ceremony to dedicate that new memorial started with the tower chimes, then the playing of Taps. The flags on the South Mall of the tower plaza were lowered to half staff. UT-Austin President Greg Fenves led a procession across the mall to the turtle pond – which had been dedicated to the Tower shooting victims several years ago.

Shooting survivor Claire Wilson James was among those in the procession. She walked across the same hot concrete, where 50 years ago she lay bleeding – shot in her pregnant belly next to her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, who was killed by the sniper.

“I’ve asked myself many times over the last several years how can it help to have a memorial,” Wilson James says. “Because I wasn’t raised in that sort of tradition. But for the many people who have come to the university who have seen these fallen where they’ve breathed their last, it will be reassuring and comforting.”

It’s comforting to John Fox who risked his life that day to help lift Wilson James to safety.

“I know two of those people on the monument – they were both in my high school graduating class – Paul Sonntag and Claudia Rutt,” he says. “They were engaged and came down here to get a ring. I’m glad the monument is up because I’m hoping it’s going to help provide a little closure to the grieving families of the fallen, the people we lost day that.”

And it’s doing just that for Jeannie Speed Shone, who lost her husband Officer Billy Speed in the shooting.

“It hasn’t been easy, I’ll be honest with you,” Speed Shone says. “Every Aug. 1 it’s really sad. But I like to see this come to a closure. But life goes on. And I’m just so glad I’m part of it.”

Besides a bigger, perhaps more appropriate memorial to the shooting victims, the other big gift to those who were affected by the shooting were the words of UT-Austin President Greg Fenves.

“The new memorial and today’s remembrance is long, long overdue,” Fenves said. “Fifty years ago, society responded to violent tragedy differently. Healing was thought to occur when we moved on. Survivors did not receive the support that they needed. The campus did not fully grieve before trying to return to normal.”

Survivor John Fox says yes, these words were long overdue – but he’s glad they’ve now been said.

“It’s been a long time but I really can’t fault UT, because I didn’t talk about it for many years either,” Fox says. “It’s a terrible, awkward subject and I’m glad UT has finally done the right thing. And I’ve never been more proud of my alma mater than I am today.”

The Tower clock begin to chime again on the afternoon of Aug. 2, 2016 and the crowds from the dedication ceremony were gone. But the hope is this new memorial will do more to remind those on campus of what happened here 50 years ago.

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Changes on Campus: Campus Carry

Aug. 1, 2016 marked fifty years since a shooter attacked the University of Texas at Austin from atop the clock tower. It also marked the first day that people with licenses to carry handguns can take their weapons onto Texas public college campuses.

State lawmakers say the timing of the “Campus Carry” law on the anniversary of the Tower shooting is a coincidence.

People who lived through the UT Tower shooting have mixed emotions about the new law.

Sue Wiseman isn’t sure allowing guns on college campuses is going to prevent future incidents. “I’ve been there,” she says. “I’ve seen what will happen and I don’t think just allowing somebody to have one is going to make us safer.”

Larry Faulkner says there’s no reason to allow guns on campus. “In the era we’re in now, it’s insane, there’s no purpose to it, there’s no reason to allow it,” he says.

But some are in support of the new law.

“If I was a student on campus, I would want to be able to carry a gun in my purse,” says Cheryl Botts Dickerson.

Ray Martinez is also on board. “I believe in the second amendment, however with common sense,” he says.

Texas is joining eight other states that allow guns on campus, as the controversial campus carry law takes effect Aug. 1.

Now people with licenses can carry concealed weapons at public colleges across Texas.

The change has stirred both comfort and fear at the University of Houston.

Take new student orientation. It covers the basics of college life, including class schedules, academic advising and what to do when students become sick. Now it also covers carrying a gun.

“Concealed carry is you cannot see it. So bottom line is you should not see any guns here on this campus, unless it’s a law enforcement officer,” explained Sgt. Dina Padovan to a crowd of new transfer students and their parents.

All summer Padovan with the campus police has given this lecture on what they can expect from campus carry.

It’s one way the University of Houston has prepared for guns on campus.

State lawmakers passed campus carry in 2015, but universities were given time to draft their own policies. University presidents can create some gun-free zones, but they can’t enact a campus-wide ban or a classroom-wide ban. Public four-year universities have to follow campus carry, while private universities can opt out.  It will impact Texas public community colleges in 2017.

UH Police Chief Ceaser Moore said that he doesn’t know if guns will make campus safer. He’s focused on raising awareness.

“We’re past the philosophical argument of pro or con. We’re at this point where the law has passed, the policy is in place and we’re implementing the law.  That’s what we’re doing,” Moore said.

Moore said that the most visible change will be new signs that mark gun-free zones — places like the day care, special labs and the recreation and wellness center.

“I don’t think that the typical student will see any difference in their college experience because the typical student will not be carrying a gun,” Moore said.

Until now, guns haven’t been part of the typical college experience in Texas. In fact, one survey found that students in Texas oppose guns on campus two to one.

Students who advocate for gun rights welcome the change.

“You can carry within here and everything,” said Aaron Patton, a junior majoring in biotechnology at UH. During the semester, he regularly grabs food and meets friends at the student center. He grew up hunting and got a concealed carry license when he was 18 back home in Alabama.

“To me, that’s nice. I carry most places that I go off of campus. It’s nice to know that I  can come in and I can eat and I can feel safe knowing I have my own firearm on me,” Patton said.

When Patton gets his final class schedule, he’ll check if concealed weapons are restricted in any of them. He plans to carry as much as possible.

“In case something awful were to happen on campus, I’d know I’d be able to defend and protect myself,” Patton said.

Other students find no comfort in that.

“To say the least, I’d say I’m frightened,” said Ahmed Sarraj. He’s a senior and plans to graduate in chemical engineering next May.

“I know in Texas here, everyone just talks about how much we like our guns. But with campus carry, I think that’s the last place guns should be — at a school environment like the University of Houston,” Sarraj said.

Sarraj has to adapt to that concept at the student center, in his classes and where he lives. He’s going to be a resident adviser at the only dorm on campus where concealed weapons are allowed, the Calhoun Lofts.

“It’d be, I guess, alarming to open up a resident’s room and see a gun there and then know that they’re allowed to have that gun,” Sarraj said.

In that case, he’s supposed to walk out and call the cops. Concealed handguns can’t be in plain sight at the dorm; they have to be kept on the license holder’s body or in a secure gun safe.

But concealed weapons are allowed inside professor’s offices at UH. That has professors like Maria Gonzalez nervous.

“I teach feminist theory and I teach queer theory. I teach some fairly controversial topics,” Gonzalez said.

This year Gonzalez might be more cautious with those controversial topics. She might move student meetings to gun-free zones. Gonzalez also wants to help the department’s academic advisers file a request to make their office gun-free. That’s an option under the UH campus carry policy if an area meets certain criteria for a restriction.

“Because we have had incidents where we have had to call security on a student, where, in fact, students have yelled and screamed. You know, they’ve said things like, ‘You’ve ruined my life’ at the top of their lungs,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez has also considered something else. She may get her own license to carry a weapon.

“There’s a part of me that instinctively says if you’re concealed carrying, so am I,” she said. “But then I’m just asking for the OK Corral here.”

She has three more weeks to decide before classes start.

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Changes in Texas Gun Culture

A series of mass shootings, starting with the UT tower shooting in 1966, led to looser regulations for Texans to carry handguns in the name of self-defense.

Texas gun regulations, especially for handguns, began loosening some 25 years ago. It’s a trend that seems to coincide with people feeling the need to protect themselves – a feeling that runs through Texas history.

Former state land commissioner Jerry Patterson collects Texas history, the firearms that tell the story of how law and order was forged at the end of a gun barrel.

“Instead of a percussion cap,” he says, “you use powder. And when you fire the weapon there is flint and a spark.”

Patterson owns a virtual museum of firearms: muzzle loaders, antique stagecoach guns, Civil War-era rifles that date back to the mid-1800s. He says they help define who Texans are today.

“Firearms have always been part of Texas history,” he says. “We have people who are very independent-minded, people who are self-sufficient and people who needed arms in their daily lives.”

Before he was land commissioner, Patterson was the state senator who pushed to give Texans the right to carry concealed weapons.

In 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed the UT tower and fatally shot 14 people, many students and faculty legally carried long guns in their vehicles and used them to fire back at the gunman. But they didn’t have the right to carry handguns in public places, either concealed or in the open.

Patterson wanted to that to change. In 1991, a mass shooting helped do that.

George Hennard, an unemployed merchant marine, crashed his pickup into the Luby’s restaurant in Killeen and opened fire. He killed himself and 24 people. Former state Rep. Suzanna Hupp was in the restaurant and escaped, but both her parents died.

“It wasn’t until he actually worked his way to the front of the truck,” she says, “and I saw him very methodically take aim and shoot someone on the floor in front of him and then he walked to the next one, took aim and shot the next person – and that’s when I realized this person is just here to execute people.”

Hupp, a chiropractor, carried a gun but had left it in the car, because it would have been illegal for her at the time to take it inside the restaurant.

“I didn’t want to get caught with it, I didn’t want to lose my license to practice,” she says. “You know I did what most normal people think – ‘Eh, what are the odds?’”

In 1995, following the Luby’s massacre, Hupp joined Patterson in successfully passing the concealed weapons law. Patterson says Hupp provided the key testimony at a Senate committee hearing.

“She stood up and she walked around and she pointed her thumb and forefinger like a gun,” he says, “and said ‘And just imagine yourself in my situation as this guy walks around’ and she’s pointing at various members of the committee, just picking them off like sitting, helpless ducks.”

Since then Second Amendment advocates like Patterson have continued lobbying, chipping away at remaining restrictions on where and how guns can be used.

In 2007 they expanded the state’s Castle Doctrine with the Stand Your Ground Law. It cleared the way for gun owners to use deadly force if they feel threatened – not only in their homes, but also if they’re in their vehicles or places of business.

Seven years later, in 2015, gun rights activists scored two more big victories. Texas lawmakers passed the open carry law, giving handgun owners the option to show their holstered firearms in many public places.

They voted to lift the ban on concealed weapons on college campuses, which has been in place since Vietnam war protests in the 1960s.

Fifty years after Whitman, as mass shootings continue to make headlines around the country, gun sales in Texas are stronger than ever and there are fewer limitations on where Texans can carry their guns.

Harel Shapira, a Cambridge Fellow and sociology professor at UT-Austin, says that’s not surprising. Citizens are concerned about safety.

“People’s primary motivation for purchasing firearms shifted from hunting and sports to primarily self-defense (and) self-protection,” Shapira says. “And I think one of the things that reveals to us is an increasing sense of insecurity among the population.”

Having guns on their hips makes some Texans feel less vulnerable. Owners like Paul Liu, of Amigos BBQ in Austin, actually encourage customers to show off their hardware.

“I’ve had as many as 16 people in here and they’re all open-carrying,” Liu says. “None of the other customers say, ‘Oh, you know what? I’m going to leave because I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel comfortable.’ As a matter of fact, everyone just carries on a conversation with them.”

Jerry Patterson says Texas is just building on its history.

“In our constitution – Article I Section XXII – makes reference for the right for citizens to wear, W-E-A-R. Not just bear but wear,” Patterson says. “So a gun culture was inherent from 1836 to the present.”

The firearms are different than they were in the 1800s, but Patterson says the way many Texans feel about guns is pretty much the same.

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Changes in Ambulance Service

In the wake of the UT Tower shooting, the nation saw a change with emergency responders – including medical services. Before 1966, half of all ambulance services were run by funeral homes.

Becky Villaseñor Burrisk had an unusual childhood. She was 15 years old when Charles Whitman took to the top of the University of Texas at Austin tower and began shooting at people on the campus below. It was Aug. 1, 1966.

“I remember being in first grade and being in the morgue while dad worked,” Burrisk says.

Burrisk’s father, Charles Villaseñor, owned Mission Funeral Home in Austin. In 1966, he was in his mid-30s. On that day, Villaseñor did not just care for the dead – he also cared for the living.

Rick Narad is a professor at California State University, Chico. He says back in the 60s, operating an ambulance meant getting an injured person to the hospital – nothing more.

“Get the patient from the scene to a higher level of care and we didn’t really worry that much about any medical treatment during that time,” he says.

But in the 60s half of the ambulances in the country were actually operated by funeral homes. That’s exactly what was on Villaseñor’s mind that Monday. The family had recently gotten a two-way radio. It was on in the office.

“The call came in,” his daughter, Burrisk says. “There was a shooting down at the university at the tower.”

Her father jumped up. He grabbed one of his workers.

“They put on their white jackets and they were out the door,” Burrisk says.

Villaseñor was one of the first ambulance operators on scene. He and his team grabbed the wounded and took them to Brackenridge Hospital – the only trauma center in the city at the time. These funeral home workers had little medical training.

After the shooting, the National Academy of Sciences released a paper surveying emergency services across the country.

“It found that, among other things, the equipment wasn’t very good, the training was minimal, if nonexistent, and we didn’t do anything really to coordinate all the different providers,” Rick Narad says.

Government and private entities reacted – and we slowly began to see the EMS system change into what we know it as today.

Keith Noble is a commander with the Austin-Travis County EMS, which started in 1976. Paramedics now undergo nearly a year of training. They can provide medical care on the way to the hospital, and they also train alongside police officers.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been focusing on active shooter training pretty extensively with our field and command staff,” Noble says.

Noble says in these cases they’re focusing on potentially life-saving procedures like stopping bleeding and starting CPR. It’s a sophisticated model compared to 1966, when there was no protocol for a sharpshooter picking off victims – civilians, officers and funeral home directors with little direction, but lots of heart.

“There’s not a whole lot of people who have the ability to face that and to help other people through it,” Becky Burrisk says.

Burrisk says her dad never talked much about that day. But look through a 1966 cover article in Life Magazine, and you can just make him out: his back is to the photographer and he’s helping a man into the rear of his ambulance. It looks like a hearse, with emergency lights on top. On the back of his coat, you can barely make out the word: “Mission.”

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Changes in Police Response

In 1966, the first responders to the UT Tower shooting included some of those you might expect — police officers. The attack on campus was unlike anything U.S. law enforcement had seen at the time. And because of this, protocol was forced to change.

It’s hard to go a week in America without a mass shooting. They happen unexpectedly – at night clubs, high schools, office parties.

But on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed to the 28th floor of the University of Texas at Austin tower and began shooting down at the campus below, it was almost unheard of.

Commander Todd Gage oversees Austin’s special operations bureau. “When you had the tower shooting, we hadn’t seen that as law enforcement in the United States,” Gage says. “That was something brand new.”

Gage says the circumstances of the shooting were unique: “Somebody from an elevated position, a tactical advantage on a tower, shooting innocent folks below him at a university campus.”

Should a mass shooting happen in Austin today, Gage says it would unfold like it did in 1966. After shots are fired, there would be an influx of 9-1-1 calls.

“We would be sending officers there to assess the situation and of course, just like in ’66, once they come on scene they would start taking fire just like they did then,” Gage says.

In 1966 those first officers were uniform cops on their beats. Today, patrol officers would also be first on the scene – it makes sense because they’re stationed around the city, so some officers would already be nearby. But that’s where the similarities end – at least for now.

Milton Shoquist was among the Austin police officers that day who responded to reports of a man shooting from the UT-Austin tower. He was six weeks out of the academy. But even seasoned officers weren’t prepared for what they faced.

“Chaotic is very descriptive of what we faced that day,” Shoquist says. “We were just kind of flying by the seat of our pants. There was no plan, no training, when you encounter something like that.”

There was also limited weaponry. Officers had revolvers back then, which require manual reloading. Nowadays, some patrol officers have rifles – and access to protective gear. But more importantly, most officers have at least some training for a mass shooting.

Pete Blair is the executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training center at Texas State University. Blair runs active shooter training for law enforcement. Over the past 50 years, standards for how to handle an active shooter have changed.

“They need to go to the sounds of gunfire,” Blair says. “They need to find the shooter and stop them as quickly as possible.”

But in ’66, there was no protocol.

“You had the tower shooting,” he says. “When that happened it was patrol officers who dealt with that problem. They ultimately went in and went up the tower to confront the shooter.”

Officers Houston McCoy and Ramiro “Ray” Martinez shot and killed Whitman. They reached the shooter after a chaotic hour-and-a-half. There was a lack of police department leadership and there was no model for how to handle a situation like that.

That same decade, police departments started building special teams in reaction to race riots and mass shootings. Los Angeles was the first. They called it Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT.

“What we saw was a change in policing toward more and more specialization,” Blair says. “An active shooter situation would become the problem of a tactical team or a SWAT team – people who are specifically trained and their primary job is to deal with those kind of situations.”

But 30 years later, this backfired in a big way.

In 1999, two Colorado high school students killed 12 of their classmates and one teacher during a 50-minute shooting spree. Even though police showed up three minutes after shooting began, SWAT officers didn’t enter the school until nearly two hours later.

“The shooters had free reign to murder students in the school,” Blair says.

The protocol was for patrol to secure the scene, call in SWAT and then wait for these specialized officers to handle it. Victims might have been saved if police hadn’t depended on SWAT.

“Again we saw a shift and realization that an active shooter situation, because it’s ongoing violence, really is a problem for a patrol officer to deal with and resolve,” Blair says.

It’s still protocol for SWAT teams to be called. But because it’s now common for patrol officers to have active shooter training, they can act immediately. Blair says their first objective would be to bypass the wounded until the shooter is taken care of.

So today the end result would likely look much the same as it did in 1966: patrol officers taking the shooter down. But with today’s training, we might not have –as we did in 1966 – 14 dead and dozens wounded near the UT tower.

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Changes in Mental Health Conversations

When news about shootings in Dallas, in Orlando or San Bernardino hits, our reactions are much the same.

For some people, the attack on police officers by a gunman in Dallas this month brought to mind another attack by a sniper in Austin 50 years ago. That’s when another 25-year-old man, Charles Whitman, killed 16 people and wounded 32 others. For decades, people have struggled to figure out why. There have been theories about abuse, a brain tumor, and of course, insanity.

Six months before Charles Whitman stuck his rifle over the edge of the clock tower at UT Austin he visited a school psychiatrist.

While he was there, he admitted he had a violent fantasy of going to the top of the tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.

Gary Lavergne, who wrote “A Sniper in the Tower,” says the school psychiatrist, Dr. Maurice D. Heatly, claimed he’d heard violent fantasies in therapy with many students before.

“Today we take it a whole lot more seriously because of our history, but back then, that kind of thing didn’t happen,” Lavergne says.

Dr. Heatly spoke in a news conference after the shooting:

“It’s a common experience “for students who come to the mental hygiene clinic to refer to the tower as the site of some desperate action, they say ‘I feel like jumping off of the old tower.’ [Charles Whitman had] no psychosis symptoms at all! I recall him giving me the impression that he would return.”

Whitman never went back to the clinic. He would return to his violent fantasy though. Lavergne says the 25-year-old ex-marine and former Eagle Scout was incredibly methodical as he went about killing his mother, placing her body in bed as if she were sleeping, and then stabbing his wife on July 31.

“By 3 o’clock in the morning, his wife and his mother are both murdered,” says Lavergne. “After that, until he goes to the campus, he spent the rest of his time polishing, getting weapons ready, buying more ammunition. All for the specific goal of going to the top of the UT Tower and shooting people.”

It’s hard to imagine now, but this was a time when mass shootings weren’t part of American life. When people never thought twice about gathering in public or sitting in a crowded theater.

After the shooting, Texas governor John Connally could barely find words to express himself.

“Of course I am concerned,” Connally said, “disturbed, and yet somewhat at loss to know how you prevent a maniacal act of a man who obviously goes berserk.”

Maniac. Berserk. Fifty years later, when news about shootings in Dallas, in Orlando or San Bernardino hits, our reactions are much the same. We assume the shooter is insane, and that crimes like this could be avoided if so-called “crazy” people didn’t have guns.

Which raises two questions: First, was Charles Whitman mentally ill? And second, could policies focusing on mental health prevent mass shootings?

Question No. 1: Was Charles Whitman “mentally ill”?

Writer Gary Lavergne doesn’t think so.  Whitman, he says, had common mental health challenges, depression, anxiety, but more than anything, he was manipulative.

“He was always who he was expected to be,” Lavergne says. “In front of his father-in-law he at times appeared to be a dutiful husband. When in fact he assaulted his wife, just like his daddy assaulted his mother. And he gave people the impression he was an honor student. When in fact when he died he had a 1.9 grade point average.”

Charles Whitman did seem to think something was wrong with him. This is an excerpt from a note he left on his wife’s body.

“I don’t really understand myself these days,” he wrote. ” I’m supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately, I can’t recall when it started, I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts, these thoughts constantly recur…”

Whitman didn’t mention he’d also been abusing drugs — amphetamines like Dexedrine — but the potential impact of those chemicals fizzled out of the conversation as soon as a pathologist made a striking discovery in his autopsy. A discovery that would become almost tongue-in-cheek folklore: a brain tumor.

That tumor is still a big question mark. One doctor said the “grayish yellow mass” wasn’t a factor, but later, a medical panel diagnosed it as a glioblastoma and said it could have contributed to Whitman’s inability to control his emotions and actions. Pathologist Elizabeth Burton agrees it’s possible.

“You can have headaches, you can have seizures, and you can have changes in cognition, and you can actually have personality changes.”

Here’s the thing. Plenty of people have tumors. And plenty of people have depression, anxiety and paranoia.

Question No. 2: Could policies aimed at mental health prevent mass shootings?

Paul Appelbaumdirector of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University points out that only a tiny percent of violence is attributable to mental illness. In the U.S., just 4 percent of violence.

“We know that people with serious mental disorders are at somewhat elevated risk of committing violence,” Appelbaum says. “Even so, the vast majority of them never commit a violent act. And we know that people with serious mental illnesses are much more likely to end up as victims of violence rather than as perpetrators.”

People with mental illness are more likely to end up as victims of violence — that’s something you almost never hear in the political discussion after a mass shooting. In fact one of the few things you hear from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a focus on the connection between gun violence and mental illness.

“We have got to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them, domestic abusers, people with serious mental health problems,” is something Clinton often says at campaign rallies.

Trump has said “No matter what you do, guns no guns, it doesn’t matter. You have people that are mentally ill and they are going to come through the cracks and they’re going to do things that people will not even believe are possible.”

After a shooter killed twenty children in Newtown, President Obama called for a gun crackdown, that didn’t happen. But, Obama’s 2017 budget does include an additional $500 million dollars for mental health services.

Appelbaum says this is a misguided approach.

“We need more funding for treatment of people with mental illness in this country,” Appelbaum says. “But to argue for that funding on false grounds, namely to try and persuade the public that it will protect them if only we have more mental health clinics in the long run can only backfire.”

What’s striking, looking back fifty years is how little our reactions have changed. Author Gary Lavergne remembers that hot August day in ‘66, when his father, a Louisiana police chief saw news of the UT shooting on TV.

“I remember him looking at my momma and saying, that is not good news. He said, ‘That kook is showing everybody what is possible.’ He said ‘We’re going to see a lot more of this.’ And unfortunately, as everyone knows, he was right.”

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Changes on Campus: Security & Counseling

The UT tower shooting was the first in a decades-long history of what has become a near-ritual of school shootings. But the events of the summer of 1966 left another, more compassionate legacy as well.

The University at Texas at Austin motto is meant to inspire: “What starts here changes the world.”

The unimaginable started here on a clear summer day in August 1966. Radio reports recorded the echoes of gunfire from a sniper shooting down at people on the UT-Austin campus from the main building tower observation deck.

Up until then, a mass public shooting at a school campus was unheard of. But that was just the beginning. From that point on, school shootings have become a common tragedy. What started at UT-Austin forever changed the world we knew.

So many react to school shootings with an “Oh no, not again.” So many shootings have torn apart communities across the country: ColumbineVirginia TechSandy Hook. Mass shootings are more common now than they were before 1966, but the Tower shooting did not only foreshadow more shootings, it also gave birth to an array of security measures that didn’t exist back then: modern, well-equipped campus police departments.

“We’re a full-service law enforcement agency,” says Don Verett, assistant chief of UT-Austin police. “Anything you’d expect of a major metropolitan or sheriff’s department, the University of Texas police department carries.”

This means everything from weapons to tactics. For example, Verett has a navy blue bulletproof vest standing at the ready. “I have some heavier body armor that has the ceramic plates in it that will stop a rifle,” he says. “That just stops handguns.”

The weapons and armor this department and other college police departments have are a direct response to the 1966 attack. In fact, UTPD was created shortly after, in 1968.

Margaret Berry was dean of women at UT-Austin the year of the shooting. By that point she had been with the university for over 30 years, in one capacity or another, and was well-regarded. So when people started talking about the possibility of providing counseling for those affected by the shooting, her name came up.

“I was asked to be the first coordinator of the 24-hour telephone counseling center,” Berry says.

It was a radical idea. Remember this was the era of happy-go-lucky, like shows Andy Griffith, Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. Vietnam veterans coming home had never heard of PTSD. People just didn’t talk about mental health.

Neither did they talk about counseling as a possible conduit to healing. That’s why UT-Austin’s 24-hour counseling service – the first in the nation – became such a game-changer. But, Berry says, it didn’t come about without trepidation.

“They didn’t want to put the office over in the counseling center,” she says. “They didn’t want students to know where it was. So they put it in the Dean of Students’ office, in a cloak room – no windows or anything in it, so students wouldn’t know where it was.”’

Few signs on campus advertised the counseling line. “We know some good things occurred with that,” Berry says. “Sometimes students would just call and say, ‘I just wanted to know if you were there.’”

Today, more and more trauma survivors are met with compassion, out in the open. Their pain is acknowledged and not kept in a cloakroom. That too started here, and it too has changed the world.

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