Gallaudet: The Latest
With Dr. Jane Fernandes
Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2001; 3 p.m. EST
Two unsolved killings at Gallaudet University have left student and faculty members with many unanswered questions. Authorities have refused to link the cases or to say that they are not linked.
The most recent death occurred Saturday. Benjamin Varner, 19, was found stabbed in his dormitory room and police say there may have been a struggle. The first student killed in Cogswell Hall was Eric F. Plunkett, also 19, found in a locked room three floors below Varner's in September.
Dr. Jane Fernandes, provost at the university and spokesperson for the school during the investigation, will be our online guest Wednesday, February 7 at 3 p.m. EST. Fernandes is also the leader of the campus's crisis management team and has intimate knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the two cases.
A transcript follows.
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Dr. Jane Fernandes: Hello. I am Jane Fernandes, provost, at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. I am here to answer your questions about the University as we deal with the second tragic murder of one of our students.
Dededo Guam, U.S.A.:
I have a daughter that attends your school along with her boyfriend there. This recent tragic event and the miles separating her from us only double the feeling of wanting to get her out of Gallaudet and back to Guam. I was assured the last time that security was tightened and nothing like this was to happen again. Granted, no one can predict the future but can those same words be said again "Everything will be alright."?
My daughter has long dreamt of attending a fine school such as Gallaudet, she's finally there and now this happens. What is being done or said to the students to assure their safety? Is my daughter safe? Gallaudet is a fine school and the dream need not fade. Words of encouragement are needed now, not only for the students but families especially for, like all parents would say, "Me."
Dr. Jane Fernandes: The safety and security of students, faculty and staff are our top priorities. We are taking every step to ensure safety on campus. At this time, we have 100% I.D. checks at the front gate. Access to the residence halls is via smart card assigned to those who live there. We have asked all residents to sign into the dorms and show their I.D. cards to enter the dorms. Non-Gallaudet visitors are not permitted to enter the dorms. We have called upon faculty and staff to volunteer working in the dorms at night. They have responded in large numbers and are monitoring the wings in each dorm. We have a very visible presence of police officers on campus which helps us feel secure. We have cameras mounted on the outside of buildings. I believe we are doing everything possible to ensure that students are safe.
I felt bad for those Gallaudet students. It was unbelievable it happened at the campus. I am sure most of them have to watch their back more than before. My question here is: have any students left Gallaudet because of two murders? If so, how many have left?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: As a result of Eric Plunkett's murder, one student withdrew. Currently, five students have withdrawn as a result of Ben Varner's death. I believe that the Gallaudet community is united in courage and will not allow a person who commits murder to detract from what the University means to all deaf and hard of hearing people in America, and, indeed, the world.
Is there university protocol -- such as inclement weather guidelines -- for dealing with murders on-campus? Judgement and reaction, while meant in the very best interests, seem somewhat hasty.
Dr. Jane Fernandes: The University has an experienced crisis management team which convenes as needed. Since Ben Varner's death, the crisis management team, which I lead, has met twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evenings. We discuss the best ways to handle issues that arise and make decisions about the best way to manage them. Great care and deliberate attention is being given to managing every aspect of this situation.
From what I read in the papers, the students are getting their information from the media, why aren't campus officials able to provide basic information to the students?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: The District of Columbia police department is responsible for all aspects of the investigation into Ben Varner's murder. Gallaudet University is cooperating fully with the police department; therefore, we rely upon the DC police for updates and information on the case. When we receive information from the police, we immediately disseminate it to students, faculty and staff on campus.
The DC police have repeatedly stressed to us the need to maintain strict confidentiality in their investigation in order not to jeopardize or compromise their case.
I understand that it is frustrating for students to read information in the newspapers. I share their frustration.
Where is I King Jordan in all of this? Why isn't the University President taking the lead in answering these questions?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: As the provost of Academic Affairs, I am responsible for all student programs on campus. I am leading the crisis management team as we work to bring a sense of normalcy back to the campus. King Jordan is my boss and I report to him several times per day about situations on campus and discuss with him how to manage them. He is very well aware of every thing that occurs in this matter.
Also, The President is working with key leaders outside of the University, including the Mayor and the Chief of Police, to help them close the investigation.
Have video cameras been installed in the dorm or outside of the dorm?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: We already have many cameras mounted on the outside of our buildings. After the tragic death of Eric Plunkett, we received many suggestions about strengthening security on campus. As a result of this input, we ordered 13 new cameras. They have only started to arrive recently. We will be mounting them as soon as they arrive and will give special attention to the outside of the dormitories.
We are still thinking about the best way to improve security inside the dormitories including the possible installation of cameras.
If my son (a student at Gallaudet now) wants to come home, will he be able to leave with all of his things still locked in his dorm room in Cogswell? How will this be handled since my son was only allowed five minutes to gather his things for the rest of this semester?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: Your son will be able to leave even though his things are still in Cogswell Hall. If your son lived on the 4th floor of Cogswell, it will be some time before he can get his things. If he lived on the other floors, we hope he will be able to remove his things sometime soon, possibly today.
You should know that this was not our decision. The DC police made the whole building a crime scene. Since evidence is scattered throughout the building, it is necessary to tightly control access to it.
King Jordan has been working with the Chief of Police to emphasize that as soon as it can be done without harming the investigation, our students must be allowed back into the dorm to get their things.
In addition, the University will purchase clothes and other items for the students who lived in the wing where the murder happened, since their access will be restricted for quite some time.
Got e-mail this morning and this e-mail said that Ben Varner got out of the closet recently. Since I do not believe everything I read, I am forwarding this to you. Does the murder have anything to do with Ben being gay. This is really sad for all of us. Please share with President Jordan that we do sympathize with him and with the college family as well as the victims' and their families on this sad occasion. Hope they will find someone who murdered two boys.
Dr. Jane Fernandes: Speculating about any aspect of this case hurts the police investigation. The police need to gather facts and evidence in order to bring the perpetrator to justice -- which is what all of want to see.
To my knowledge, there is no evidence that Ben Varner was gay.
Do you have any updates on the possibility
that the first and second murders are
Dr. Jane Fernandes: Again, speculation does not help this case. I am sure that the DC police are looking into every possible lead including that the two cases might be connected and that they might, in fact, not be.
I wonder about the role of the Department of Safety and Security in these investigations. As I recall, the officers of DOSS are not exactly the most fluent signers in the world, which just adds to the anxiety that students have with officers. --A Concerned Alumnus
Dr. Jane Fernandes: The Department of Safety and Security at Gallaudet is not investigating the case. They have no role in interviewing students or any other people involved. They are cooperating fully with the DC police as they conduct the investigation.
Although not involved in the investigation, the officers of Gallaudet campus security are working overtime (and then some!) to ensure that the campus community is safe.
Everyone who works at Gallaudet is required to know or to learn American Sign Language. It is true that some people are more proficient at it than others. This is true of learning any language.
Hi, is it true that ALL floors of Cogswell Hall on campus are closed for the remainder of the term?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: The President has decided that Cogswell Hall will be closed for the remainder of the semester. He believes that the 4th floor of Cogswell will remain a crime scene for quite some time. The police will continue to enter the dorm to gather evidence. He felt that the residents would not want to live in an environment that constantly reminds them of the tragedy that took place.
In addition, all residents of Cogswell have been relocated temporarily. We know that some of those students prefer to stay in their new locations. That reduces the total number of students who would live there. It would be difficult to assure the safety of students if they are scattered throughout the building.
College Park, Md.:
I am a student at the University of Maryland. In our residence halls we have electronic swipe cards where you have to swipe to get into the building, swipe to get into the elevator, and swipe a third time to press the floor you are going to. This, of course, makes it impossible for people to enter unnoticed. Are there similar security measures in place at Gallaudet?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: In Cogswell, we already have swipe cards to enter the building from the outside and swipe cards to enter the wing in which the resident lives.
I heard that religion might have played an issue because sources have told me that he converted or was converting to Islam. Is this a possible motive for the murder?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: Mr. and Mrs. Varner shared with us that their son was a devout Muslim. He converted to that religion when he was 12. At Gallaudet, he prayed five times a day and followed all of his religious practices and read the Koran. There is no evidence to my knowledge that his religion played any part in his death.
Have any students (or staff) come forward with information or identification of the owner of the jacket?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: Police have asked anyone with knowledge about the case to contact them at 202-727-1240 TTY or 202-727-9099 Voice. DC police have told me time and again that students have been very helpful in coming forward with information. Anyone who has information about the owner of the jacket should call the police.
San Francisco, Calif.:
This event has rocked the entire Deaf Community. I work with several Deaf who graduated from Gallaudet. It's as if their family home is under attack. I appreciate events like this that reach out to your alumni group. Despite repeated comments to the press that the campus is safe, I wonder if you personally believe that is true?
Dr. Jane Fernandes: I assure you that I personally believe the campus is as safe as it possibly can be. Security measures alone are not the answer; everyone on campus has to become more aware and conscious of their own safety and the safety of others. However, the University realizes that we have to make sure that the appropriate safety and security measures are in place.
Dr. Jane Fernandes: I regret that I could not answer all of your questions in the short time I had available. Please know that we are doing our utmost to restore a sense of normalcy to the campus and we, like you, hope with all our hearts that the two murder cases are solved soon.
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