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Emergency Overload

September 24, 2008

Among the many, many requirements imposed on colleges as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act that President Bush signed into law in August was a provision mandating that campuses must make public their policies for responding to campus emergencies such as terror attacks and weather catastrophes.

The idea, which was incorporated into the Higher Education Act renewal after the 2007 attacks at Virginia Tech, didn't thrill higher education leaders, given the ever-mounting regulatory burdens on colleges. But once they beat back a provision that would have required colleges to alert everyone on a campus about an emergency within 30 minutes, college groups accepted the safety requirements and moved on.

Much to their dismay, though, higher education lobbyists have discovered that Congress is poised to adopt new legislation that, in one key respect, would virtually mimic the requirements passed just a few weeks ago. The new legislation, which passed the House of Representatives on an expedited basis last week and may be "hotlined" in the Senate to allow quick passage without debate, would require all postsecondary institutions to "assess campus safety on an annual basis" and "develop an emergency response plan to prepare for emergency situations, including natural disasters, active shooter situations, and terrorist attacks," according to a news release from its House sponsor, Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.).

“Whether it is fighting terrorism or working to keep our schools free of violence, I have always believed that the government's first responsibility is to protect the people," Rothman said. "Our government must help to ensure that our children are safe and protected from violence of any kind in school. I am proud to report that this Congress has taken another step to ensure a safe learning environment for our children by passing my School Safety Enhancements Act."

The language in the legislation is very similar to that contained in the Higher Education Opportunity Act, in terms of requiring campuses to develop emergency response plans. The idea that Congress would consider passing legislation that covers much the same ground as a measure approved just weeks earlier troubles college lobbyists and leaders.

"It just seems like Congress's appetite for regulating colleges and universities is insatiable," said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. "We're just dismayed that two months after the ink dried [on the Higher Education Act renewal], they'd be back at this issue and layering on costly new regulations."

S. Daniel Carter is senior vice president of Security on Campus, which advocates for campus safety and victims' rights and led the push to include the emergency notification and other provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act. He notes that Rothman's school safety legislation -- which was sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer in her chamber of Congress -- would carve out new ground by requiring colleges to conduct annual campus safety assessments in conjunction with local law enforcement authorities, a proposal that his group is still assessing.

But he describes as a "fully legitimate concern" Timmons's view that the new legislation's provision on emergency response plans would duplicate -- and potentially muddy -- the already enacted requirement in the Higher Education Opportunity Act. "Having two separate provisions that require essentially the same thing ... could result in possible confusion," he said. "That would not be productive."

A spokesman for Rothman said that the Congressman's office "did not believe" that the two provisions would result in conflict or confusion, and that lawmakers on the House Education and Labor Committee had reviewed the legislation to make sure they did not overlap.

 

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