By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star
---- — Hartwick College’s president has joined hundreds of other college and university chiefs to urge Congress to pass gun-control legislation.
President Margaret L. Drugovich signed an open letter by College Presidents for Gun Safety written in the days after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The Dec. 14 massacre has fueled discussions across the nation about gun control, mental health care and safety at schools. In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed firearms legislation that has intensified the debate politically in the area.
Drugovich said she doesn’t align with a political party when it comes to gun control issues but with educators striving for safe schools. The discussion about gun control will go on for months if not years, she said, and for college presidents to come together in a such a letter-writing initiative is rare.
“It speaks strongly to the issue of gun safety,’’ Drugovich said. “As educators we have a responsibility to speak our minds on issues we feel this passionately about.’’
Drugovich said she supports measures and related issues outlined in the letter, including background checks; concerns about semi-automatic weapons; safety standards for storage and keeping guns inaccessible to children; and mental health care.
Hartwick, a private liberal arts and sciences college, enrolls about 1,500 students. Two political science majors at the college approved of Drugovich signing the letter.
Bobby Noto, 19, a sophomore from Amsterdam, applauded Drugovich’s initiative to take a position on a national issue and register the college among bigger institutions.
Colin Blydenburgh, 20, a junior from Ilion, said it was reassuring to see Drugovich stand up for students no matter what the public opinion or personal issues about gun control.
“She has the best interests of students at heart,’’ Blydenburgh said.
More than 350 presidents have signed the Dec. 19 letter initiated by Lawrence M. Schall, president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. On Feb. 4, at a media conference on Capitol Hill, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his endorsement of the letter, which also has the backing of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the executive committee of the American Association of Universities, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and the United States Student Association.
Drugovich, who said she was in Washington, D.C., for a scheduled meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, joined about two dozen college chiefs and Duncan.
“As a group, we do not oppose gun ownership,’’ the letter by Schall said. “But, in many of our states, legislation has been introduced or passed that would allow gun possession on college campuses. We oppose such laws.
“We fully understand that reasonable gun safety legislation will not prevent every future murder. Identification and treatment of the mental health issues that lie beneath so many of the mass murders to which we increasingly bear witness must also be addressed.’’
As Drugovich has been stepping onto a national platform regarding gun control, Cuomo has initiated the state’s SAFE Act, described as most comprehensive gun law in the nation.
The New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 will keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous mental health patients and ban high capacity magazines and assault weapons. Under the law, the criminal charge for possession of a firearm on school grounds or a school bus increases from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Though state law prohibits guns on campus, safety at Hartwick remains a concern that is addressed regularly in exercises in emergency scenarios, campus safety Director Thomas P. Kelly said. The college also offers sessions for any staff member and students based on the video “Run — Hide — Fight — Surviving an Active Shooter Event,’’ a program funded through a Department of Homeland Security grant.
Vigiliance is another important key to safety on campus, where members need to be aware of their surrounding and take preventive action, Drugovich said. She cited a recent incident, when someone reported that a student made threats against the college during a conversation via social media. The student was charged Feb. 9 by Oneonta city police with making a terrorist threat, a felony.
Drugovich said she supported “rational gun safety measures’’ stated in Schall’s letter, specifically:
• Ensuring the safety of communities by opposing legislation allowing guns on campuses and in classrooms.
• Ending the gun show loophole, which allows for the purchase of guns from unlicensed sellers without a criminal background check.
• Reinstating the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines.
• Requiring consumer safety standards for all guns, such as safety locks and access prevention laws.
About 290 college presidents have signed an online letter to President Barack Obama from M. Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College in Boston. The letter seeks gun safety measures and pledges campus discussions on how to best address gun violence in America and offers other assistance toward positive action.
Drugovich also signed the Emerson College letter and said last week that discussions are under way to develop a lecture series with opportunities for balanced discussion.
SUNY Oneonta President Nancy Kleniewski and Candace Vancko, SUNY Delhi president and officer-in-charge at SUNY Cobleskill, signed neither letter. Neither local president was available for comment Thursday.
SUNY Delhi hasn’t been approached about signing the letters, Director of Communications Kimberly MacLeod said, and the topic is a systemwide issue for which the college would seek guidance from SUNY.
Hal Legg, director of communications at the State University College at Oneonta, said the college’s position on firearms is clear — they have no place on campus. SUNY Oneonta’s Student Conduct Code prohibits the possession of any deadly instrument, including guns, Legg said, and violators are subject to criminal prosecution and/or disciplinary action by the college.
In December, Drugovich wrote a letter to the Hartwick campus community speaking about the letters, the tragic loss of life and the bravery of teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook.
“As educators, and as students, we are connected to those administrators, teachers and students who lost their lives as they went about what they believed would be another day of learning,’’ Drugovich wrote. “I am proud to know that Hartwick prepares the teachers, administrators, and parents who will help future generations of Sandy Hook students become living tributes to our commitment to strong and safe communities.’’