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Florida students say it could happen here

The tragedy at Virginia Tech is a reality check for college students.

By KEVIN GRAHAM, DREW HARWELL, ROBBYN MITCHELL and CURTIS KRUEGER, Times staff writers
Published April 18, 2007


On campuses across Florida on Tuesday, college students strolled to classes and dorms in beautiful spring weather and thought the same thing:

That could have been us.

"I hope that it doesn't happen here, but students need to be aware that it's a possibility," said Florida State University junior Charlotte Hodgson, 22, who is studying philosophy.

"We've already had one shooting this year. It shows you that it can happen anywhere. It can even happen in a classroom," said University of Miami freshman April Maxwell, 18.

"Everybody I look at makes me nervous now. It's so scary that I have to watch my back turning corners on campus," said Florida A&M junior Gerline Coulanges, 22, who is studying psychology.

Florida colleges are hundreds of miles from Virginia Tech, home to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. But they are, in the eyes of students interviewed in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Gainesville, Orlando, Miami and Tallahassee, not much different.

"This was just reality check, because according to the news, Blacksburg was a quiet little town just like this one," said FSU senior Shannon Gaines, 22, who is studying child development.

All across the University of South Florida's Tampa campus, where more than 37,000 study, students couldn't stop thinking and talking about the shooting.

John Fuss peered at the top of the school's six-story library Tuesday morning and thought: What if a gunman was perched up there?

"Just waiting for students to show up," said Fuss, 26, a senior Spanish major from Sarasota. "It's one thing to want to kill somebody you're mad at and maybe yourself. But don't take it out on innocent people."

Several students expressed doubt that a similar tragedy would strike their colleges, but many echoed the opinions of Ben Rogozinski at Florida:

"Somebody could just walk in with a gun anywhere. You can't really prevent that," said Rogozinski, 22, a senior studying biology.

"You can't have security and check-ins -- it's such an open campus."

The very things that can make colleges good places to study -- campuses nestled in tree-lined, sprawling complexes, where dorms, classrooms and libraries often are removed from urban bustle -- make them almost impossible to cordon off and guard.

USF president Judy Genshaft seemed to acknowledge as much in a letter she posted on the college Web site.

"College campuses remain vulnerable, despite state-of-the-art security efforts, because they remain free and open places of discourse that preclude total control of movement on campus," Genshaft said, "We will use this tragic incident as an opportunity to revisit our own practices."

The school already is stepping up efforts to get more people to use a communications system called MoBull Plus, which has been available since 2005. It's a free service that sends text messages to students' cell phones about weather-related emergencies, school closings and other critical information. So far, only about 5,000 students have signed up.

At many campuses, it was easy to see the impact of the Virginia tragedy on Florida students.

Nearly 60 praying students held hands encircling the eternal flame on the FAMU's campus Tuesday afternoon. The group sent up prayers for families and friends of the shooting victims. Others passing by on their way to class slowed and fell into silence.

At the University of Florida, many students discussed their finals projects or waited in line for free ice cream at Ben 'n Jerry's, but others scanned newspapers and laptops for news about the shootings. Packs of students stared at the television inside Weimer Hall (home to the College of Journalism and Communications), until they shook their heads and walked away.

Around 12:40 p.m., when hundreds of students moved from one class to another at the center of the Gainesville campus, the bells atop Century Tower rang 33 times -- one for each death, including the killer's.

And students gathered for prayers and support in one of their favorite ways -- online.

A Facebook group called "Gators Praying for those at Virginia Tech" has about 2,000 people. One student (in the "Pray for the kids at VT" group) wrote, "Whoever and whatever the hell you believe in, put it to use for these poor kids."

While many Florida students looked outwardly unconcerned, several said the tragedy was very much in their thoughts.

"To be honest, it made me second guess coming to school," said Stephanie Wiseman, 20, a sophomore elementary education student at the University of Central Florida. "When something like that happens, I can't help but wonder if it will trigger something else."

"It freaked me out hardcore," said Ashley Goldberg, a freshman at the University of Miami. "Nobody expected it. Walking around campus today is just so eerie. I didn't even call my mother because I knew she would be too freaked out to talk to me."

Times correspondents Alejandra Cancino, Rachel Hatzipanagos and Stephanie R. Mast contributed to this report.

Fast Facts: Vigil at USF Wednesday
A prayer vigil for the victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy has been scheduled for noon today at USF in Tampa, at the Martin Luther King Plaza.