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U of Calgary focuses on community, resiliency after last year’s tragedy

On the anniversary of the tragic stabbing deaths of five young people, U of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon reflects back on how the university responded.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | APR 17 2015

On April 15, the University of Calgary community rallied together to mark a year since they lost three of their own. U of C students Lawrence Hong, Joshua Hunter and Jordan Segura were among the five young victims stabbed at an off-campus, end-of-term house party in Calgary last year. The deaths of Mr. Hong, Mr. Hunter, Mr. Segura, as well as Kaitlin Perras and Zackariah Rathwell, left the university and the local community shaken – according to Calgary Police Services, it is to date the worst mass murder to happen in the city.

In response to the tragedy, and thanks to a $5-million donation from a local family, the university has developed UCalgaryStrong, a program that aims to foster a strong sense of community spirit and individual resiliency. Under the new initiative, the university has ramped up its student engagement efforts by promoting community service opportunities, by rolling out a bystander intervention program, and by offering students access to StrengthsQuest, an online talent-assessment and development tool. The program officially kicked off on Wednesday with a campus-wide arts and culture festival to “celebrate the end of the academic year and ensure that [students are] feeling strong as a community, strong as individuals and supported by the University of Calgary,” said university President Elizabeth Cannon.

University Affairs spoke with Dr. Cannon on April 13 about the initiative, the anniversary and the university’s immediate and ongoing response to the tragedy.

University Affairs: UCalgaryStrong focuses particularly on the issue of belonging. Why?

Elizabeth Cannon: As we learned about this horrific event, we quickly brought together our community; we held a community gathering that afternoon. Certainly as president it became very apparent to me that in times of crisis that people want to be together. They want to share their experiences, their anxieties. They want to know they’re part of something bigger that cares. I would say that last year’s event really highlighted the need for a university building strong communities for our students, faculty and staff.

UA: What kind of impact did these murders have on the university community?

Dr. Cannon: What I felt and heard in the aftermath was how some of the decisions that we made to support our students – like deferring exams, or bringing our community together – gave people a lot of pride in their institution. So, yes, it’s changed in the sense that it was horrific on a magnitude that people hadn’t seen or experienced here before, but I think it brought a really strong sense of humanity to the University of Calgary.

UA: What’s it like on campus right now? How are students, staff and faculty feeling?

Dr. Cannon: I think it’s been a busy academic year and people move on with their lives. On the other hand, when they hear the last day of classes is coming there’s an automatic reflection on what happened one year ago.

UA: In addition to the festival, how have you prepared for this anniversary and what it might bring up?

Dr. Cannon: Certainly we are always aware of stressors within our student body. Our counselling services are on full alert to be able to ensure that any student who needs support, we’re there for them. There will be a significant effort to ensure that we’re looking out for one another.

We’ve also been working hard this past year on the development of a mental health strategy for our campus. We have a number of great initiatives, policies in place already but we want to ensure that we have a really clear strategy that brings those pieces together.

UA: What resources did you turn to for guidance in mounting your response to these deaths?

Dr. Cannon: As a community we rely on partnerships, like those with the Calgary Police Service or our mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who was very thoughtful in his engagement with our community and with the families. A lot of our response involved things we already had in place: our counselling services, which was ready to go 24/7; our registrar’s office, which allowed students to defer exams; our chaplains, who really stood up and took care of the emotional or spiritual needs of our students. Everybody really pulled together in such a positive way. Plus, our crisis management team was monitoring the situation on a regular basis; we reached out to the families of those who were taken from us and made sure that everybody knew that we care, that we’re in it together.

UA: Did the university have any protocols or procedures in place to address a situation like this?

Dr. Cannon: We had a fully developed emergency response plan which kicked into action within about an hour of the news starting to come out on social media. Our crisis management team started working at about 7:30 that morning: we started to prepare for the more operational issues that we knew we would face; we started talking about the community gathering right away; we made strong linkages with the Calgary Police Services who were overseeing the investigation; we participated in their news conference later that morning. This is where all the preparedness of an emergency response plan, all of the tabletop exercises and mock emergencies come into play. People need to know what their role is, what they need to do, and the system has to quickly get into functioning mode. This is not the time to develop your crisis management approach, you are actually pushing the button.

UA: Did the police keep you in the loop as information came in?

Dr. Cannon: We don’t get involved in any ongoing investigations, but they were very open to us. In a time like that, going over to the police station headquarters, participating in their news conference, having them understand how important it was for us to speak to our community – being able to do these things was really important.

Because the information that was available at that time was very scarce, that impacted how we could respond from a communications perspective. Having direct information from the police allowed us to sharpen and tighten our messages.

UA: It strikes me that in an emergency response plan often your number one priority is the safety of your students. Since this wasn’t so much an issue of campus security, did that change your emergency response priorities?

Dr. Cannon: I think it changed the definition of “safety.” It wasn’t a physical safety issue, but it was really the emotional safety and wellbeing of our students, our faculty and staff that we were looking at. We focused on trying to understand the mind of our campus. We focused on what people would need to be able to operate and to really understand what had happened, and that we were providing the right tools to support them through this.

UA: Is there anything that you’d do differently?

Dr. Cannon: There are always small lessons learned, but I’m exceptionally proud of our community. Everyone who was involved: frontline support, students, our crisis management team, our communications staff, individuals on campus who helped students by giving deferred exams without asking questions, who gave a student a hug or a pep talk, or who just listened to someone in distress. It was really quite moving to see it play out.

UA: What were some of those lessons learned? Has anything changed in your response protocol?

Dr. Cannon: We always, whenever there’s a crisis like this, have a debrief on protocols or other things that we did. I’d say there were just some small tweaks made, but there weren’t any large gaps at all. The emergency response plan was well-executed and I think a model of best practices.

UA: Is violence an issue that you’re dealing with more often now?

Dr. Cannon: I wouldn’t say violence is an issue we deal with more. It’s certainly one that we need to ensure that we have appropriate policies and protocols to deal with. We’ve seen this a lot on Canadian campuses with respect to sexual assault. We’re looking at our policies and practices around how we handle those situations as we speak. As time evolves, we want to make sure that our policies reflect current thinking.

UA: Have you collaborated with other postsecondary institutions to address the issues of violence and emergency response?

Dr. Cannon: When something like this happens, it provides a tremendous opportunity to share best practices: what we did, why we did it, how the events unfolded. They become case studies for others to learn from, just like we learned from other events on other campuses. Many institutions have reached out to us to get some feedback and some context as to how we handled things.

UA: What are these institutions most interested in learning from your experience?

Dr. Cannon: I think a lot of it is the nuts and bolts of the emergency plan: how it’s structured, how you make decisions, who makes decisions. People are interested in what you knew, when you knew it, and what decisions you made based on that. They’re often decisions that have to be made quite quickly that can have significant impact on your community. In a crisis like this you win the battle, if you will, in the first 24 hours.

UA: What was most challenging for you in dealing with this tragedy in your community?

Dr. Cannon: I think it always come down to the human dimension. At the end of the day you have your role as a president of a university and obviously there are expectations of leadership around that, but this is a human tragedy. These are five people taken from us in a very tragic, horrific situation that none of us could have imagined. The most difficult part of this is trying to relate to the families when you see their pain, when you see the anguish that they’re going through. Picking up the phone to call them in the days after this event and trying to express our deepest sympathies on behalf of the institution when you know that no words can express the depth of impact that it has on them or us, that’s the most difficult part.

UA: That’s a heavy task, to speak with these families that have lost so much. How did you cope with that?

Dr. Cannon: I’ve been amazed by all of the families. They are actually strengthened by the outpouring of support by our campus, by the broader community. So, as difficult as it is to approach them and to try to say the right thing at the right moment, you can see how appreciative they are of the fact that their children are remembered, that they’re still in our hearts and minds. That, to me, you know you’re doing the right thing. You can see it in the families that they’re still so proud. For us to come together and to continue to remember them, that’s part of their healing.

UA: Has this experience changed you as a leader?

Dr. Cannon: It’s certainly given me a much stronger sense of community; of how, even as part of a large and complex institution, at the end of the day we are people, we have emotions, we have connections. It’s given me a new appreciation, a new pride in our campus, a sense of responsibility to ensure that we continue to build a stronger, more resilient, more caring University of Calgary. That’s what I can do and help shape as university president.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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