Action and Realism on Security

Recent years have seen colleges add safety measures, but experts warn about unrealistic expectations in wake of this week's tragedy.
April 18, 2007

Last Friday at the University of Michigan, there was a small fire in an academic building. The alarms went off and police arrived quickly. They found students in another part of the building. "So our police officers had to go argue with them and boot them out -- not a great use of resources," said Diane Brown, senior information officer for facilities and operations at Michigan.

"You can have lots of programs and equipment and training and technology, but if the human element doesn't utilize those, you have a very large challenge," said Brown.

Emphasis on the "human element" is very much on college officials' minds this week -- how to identify potential killers, how to respond to a gunman, how to get students to take security seriously, how to communicate with students who view any e-mail that is remotely official as spam. College presidents have rushed out statements to assure students (and anxious parents) that good security measures are in place, and reviews based on the Virginia Tech tragedy have already started.

Many experts on campus crime advise against taking too seriously any college that announces next week that it has revamped security in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings. A real revamping takes real time and won't happen overnight, they say. In addition, as the Michigan fire demonstrates, there are parts of campus culture (like students who ignore fire alarms) that aren't easy to change. Many college officials say that they are getting requests from administrators or reporters for their "lockdown plans" in ways that suggest people don't really understand what a lockdown is.

At the same time, many college officials say that in the past few years -- prior to this week's terrible events -- many institutions have been planning and carrying out significant reforms of security procedures. And a bunch of companies and consultants are pitching services to colleges on new techniques to keep campuses safe. Most expect all of this activity to intensify now -- many of the improvements followed incidents of crime or violence -- especially at colleges with large residential populations.

Some of the recent activity:

  • Northwestern University announced last month that it was installing new 24-hour alarm systems, replacing student monitors at undergraduate dormitory entrances with professional security officers, and adding closed-circuit television cameras at the entrances of all dormitories. The moves followed a study prompted by a series of incidents involving intruders in dorms in 2005.
  • Salve Regina University has provided the Newport, R.I., police with updated information on the layouts of every campus building so that the police could have more information should they need to secure a building. University and city police are also establishing joint communication systems and considering joint training exercises. Salve Regina decided to update its procedures and work more closely with the local police after a gunman in Montreal killed one student and injured 19 at Dawson College.
  • Johns Hopkins University last year created a security communications center in which a 14-person staff maintains watch over 101 special cameras throughout the campus. The "smart" cameras feature special computers to analyze the images they take in. Baltimore police have instant access to some of the cameras and a direct link to the Hopkins dispatcher. Dormitory security has been toughened, with most students needing an identification swipe card both to enter a dormitory and to reach their part of the building, where a standard key is still needed to enter a room. While Hopkins officials say that the improvements were in the works for a while, they were pushed in the wake of two murders of students off campus, one in 2004 and one in 2005.
  • The University of Florida has seen two major waves of security improvements. After five students were murdered in 1990, dormitory security was changed so that multiple key entries were needed from the point of entrance to a dormitory to reach student rooms. After the 2005 hurricane season, the university decided to focus on improving its ability to communicate quickly with all students and employees. Florida has just created an e-mail service that, with one switch, can send a message in minutes to 51,000 students, 4,000 faculty members, and 35,000 other employees. Previously, separate systems were used for each group and required different authorization, leading to delays of up to an hour. The system hasn't been used yet -- the university wants it reserved only for truly dangerous situations and fears that if it sends many alerts, students may ignore them. Thousands of students are also using phones that would allow them to receive text versions of the e-mail notification.
  • The University of Akron has started asking all students applying to live in campus housing if they have  criminal records. The university then considers whether those criminal records are relevant and may suggest a danger to other students. The policy followed revelations that a number of ex-felons were living in dormitories.
  • The University of Michigan now provides police officers with training on what to do about "active shooters" on campus and refresher training is provided annually.

Many institutions and local law enforcement agencies are taking extra steps this week on security. The Rochester Institute of Technology suspended a student after he was arrested for having illegal guns in his room. Police later found ammunition in the student's vehicle, The Democrat and Chronicle reported. Drexel University's president sent a memo Tuesday to all students and employees outlining what to do in a situation with gun violence, offering strategies for leaving a building and for coping if unable to leave a building. Threats and unusual packages prompted several campuses to briefly shut buildings. A bomb threat led St. Edward's University, in Texas, to close for the day. Estrella Mountain Community College, in Arizona, evacuated and called off all classes for the day after police received a threatening note, the Associated Press reported.

Consultants and businesses are also pushing a range of new services -- and have been attracting campus customers in significant numbers. NTI, a California-based communications company, started a service five years ago to allow elementary and secondary schools to more quickly notify parents of any emergencies. A year ago, NTI introduced a college version of Connect-ED, which allows colleges to send an immediate voicemail to students' home phones, cell phones and work phones, with text versions being sent as well. The service costs colleges $2 to $3 per student per year, and in a year, the company has signed 60 higher ed contracts, covering 75-80 campuses.

Safe Havens International is a nonprofit group that does consulting and training for schools and colleges on security issues. Michael Dorn, executive director and a former police officer at Mercer University, said that he believes many college are just beginning to put in place measures that schools have been using effectively. Speaking from an airport after a training session he led for a university in Indiana, Dorn cautioned against making judgments about Virginia Tech right now, given that "half of the information is always wrong this early" after a tragedy. But he added that "a lot of these situations can be prevented."

Dorn advocated special training for police officers on visually screening people who may be carrying a concealed weapon. Likewise, he said colleges need to do a better job of identifying potential killers, using gun-detecting dogs on their campuses, and getting permission or warrants where needed to inspect more rooms.

While Dorn advocated much more activity, he also said that Virginia Tech isn't by any means the norm on which institutions should base policies. He noted that most campus gun incidents -- not all of which involve shooting --  involve one or two people. In many cases, Dorn said, these can be escalations of fights without guns, and he said that another thing colleges can do is to take more of those altercations seriously. Dorn said that when he visits campuses, he asks officials "how do you deal with fights?" Then, he said: "If they say 'we'll send them to the dean', I say 'you are asking for shooting.' "

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, questioned the idea that colleges aren't doing enough to make their campuses secure. Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, he said that there has been significant change on campuses as they have found themselves operating "in a different world." Similarly, he predicted that many colleges would again review policies now on "how to deal with the unthinkable" -- now that the unthinkable has taken place on a campus.

Hartle said perspective was important. When the Education Department conducted a major analysis of homicides on campus, at the request of Congress in 2001, not only did it find that there weren't very many of them, but that the rate of homicides per 100,000 individuals in the population was significantly less than for the population as a whole and for those aged 17 to 29. "The evidence would suggest that colleges are far safer places than just about anyplace else," he said.

Ann H. Franke, a lawyer and president of Wise Results, which advises colleges on risk management, said that she believed the scenarios in which colleges should consider the possibility of many casualties aren't necessarily those involving a mass shooting. "You could have the outbreak of an infectious disease, a fire with many people burned, food poisoning," she said.

Even if there is never another Virginia Tech style shooting, "you could still need 50 ambulances," she said, raising the question: "Are there 50 ambulances in your region?"

Franke suggested that colleges involve a range of administrators in "tabletop exercises" on how they might respond. These exercises and drills can show officials any weak spots in their plans and also make clear who needs to take charge of different parts of an emergency operation. "There are certain kinds of situations where the president should not be the leader," even if the president is appropriately the public leader, and figuring out who does what is not something to learn in an actual emergency, she said.

Harvard University has been conducting a series of such exercises, involving teams of officials over a period of more than a year, on how to respond to an outbreak of pandemic flu.

Connie L. Carson, assistant vice president for campus services at Wake Forest University and president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International, said that the campus officials who run student housing spend a lot of time on emergency preparedness and crisis planning. But she stressed that "there isn't any one size that fits all."

At Wake Forest, the plan is reviewed annually, and new training is provided to resident assistants and continuing training is provided to professionals. In the wake of a tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech, people talk about wanting to provide everyone with training to somehow identify a potential disaster before it happens. But many of those on the front lines are students, she noted.

One of the most important parts of resident assistant training, she said, needs to be "to help R.A.'s know their limits." Especially in an era when more students are arriving on campuses with psychological problems and/or medication, "we need to remember that the R.A.'s are not trained psychologists." Rather than trying to train them as if they were psychologists, Carson said, colleges need to emphasize "good paraprofessional skills, good listening skills, warning signs" so that R.A.'s know when to call the counseling center or the police.

Carson said that "lockdowns" -- much discussed in the wake of Virginia Tech -- aren't something that applies in higher education in the way many seem to think. "Security people talk about lockdowns with regard to a building, while campuses have hundreds of buildings," she said. In fact, there tends to be more concern in many campus emergency plans about how to get students out of their dormitories than on getting them to stay inside.

Brown, of the University of Michigan, said she has also wondered about whether all the discussion of lockdowns reflects a public misunderstanding of security on campus. "I have been asked several times if we can lock down the campus. Well, we're spread out. We are a public campus with buildings open to the public. We are integrated into the city, with 350-plus buildings and entrances from many, many streets," she said.

"We can isolate areas as need be, and buildings, but it's not as practical as people think to say we can lock down the campus," said Brown. "People need to remember that a campus like ours is more of a small city than a large high school."


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