Colleges cram for campus security

Colleges cram for campus security

By Kathy Boccella

From bigger guns for campus police to mass text-messaging systems to warn of emergencies, schools regionwide scrambled this summer to ramp up security and communications systems - part of the fallout from the Virginia Tech massacre in April.

"The challenge is, how do you reach everybody?" said Joe Cardona, a spokesman at Rowan University, which held a full-scale drill Thursday to test new security procedures with a pretend shooter on campus and at least a dozen victims. "Up until now, we sent out e-mails. But who's checking e-mails during the day?"

That was one of the lessons of Virginia Tech, where most students were unaware that a gunman was roaming the sprawling campus, eventually killing 32 people at two locations. In addition, incompatible systems and cellular and telephone networks jammed by calls hampered rescue efforts, according to an internal review of the shootings released Wednesday.

The tragedy, carried out by a mentally ill student who killed himself after slaying the others, spurred colleges nationwide to examine security systems and to hire more counselors and beef up outreach programs to identify and treat troubled students before they do harm.

At Ursinus College, a newly hired counselor will work with resident assistants to seek out people with problems and run group-therapy sessions.

"We found that, like every campus in America, we were behind the ball for a while in our counseling needs," said Debbie Nolan, dean of students at Ursinus. "We thought we didn't have the money to [hire another counselor] until we saw what happened at Virginia Tech, and it was, 'Oh, we absolutely have to do it.' "

Delaware Valley College has brought in two more psychiatrists, and counselors will mingle with students at social events and the dining hall.

"They're more likely to come in if they can say, 'That person's nice. I've seen them around,' " said Karen Kay, director of the counseling center.

In the aftermath of the April 16 shooting rampage, the deadliest by an individual in U.S. history, schools scurried to tighten security. Drexel University rolled out a new GPS handheld device that allows anyone on campus with a cell phone to communicate with security patrols.

Most schools found that their biggest safety gap was the ability to get in touch with students quickly. To remedy that, many have turned to mass text-alert systems, little used just a year ago and now seemingly as indispensable as libraries.

Omnilert, which makes the e2Campus alert system, said 175 colleges had signed up for the service, up from 30 in April.

"I would anticipate at least 250 by the end of the year," said Ara Bagdasarian, president of the company, which is based in Leesburg, Va.

The system sends a message in multiple ways, including cell-phone texts, voice mail, and digital signs in public places such as student unions or dorms. Anyone who signs up, including faculty and parents, will get a warning in the event of a calamity.

"It went from being a nice thing to have to a need-to-have service rather quickly," said Bagdasarian, who has doubled his staff to handle the influx in business. "There's no doubt that Virginia Tech increased the awareness on a broader scale."

Schools have used the alerts for all kinds of emergencies, from a pit bull loose on the Florida A&M campus to a chlorine-gas leak at the University of New Mexico, Bagdasarian said.

Pennsylvania State University already had e2Campus, but after Virginia Tech, subscribers jumped from 2,000 to 20,000. Still, the challenge may be getting students to sign up.

Villanova University sent out an e-mail about its Nova Alert text-message system this summer and had 2,400 people sign up before school opened, said Ken Valosky, vice president for administration and finance.

Lisa Munyan, a sophomore from Lafayette Hill, was one of them.

"I have my cell phone on me all the time," the 19-year-old business major said. "Basically, it's the only way to get communications out there efficiently."

Students who don't have cell phones will have to rely on college Web sites for information.

In June, State Rep. Scott Conklin (D., Centre) introduced a resolution urging every college in the state to install a text-messaging alert system, which costs about $1 per student each semester.

"Seconds do save lives, and having this system available can save lives," said Conklin, who lives in Philipsburg, home to a student who was killed at Virginia Tech. "If he had that information [that a gunman was on the loose] 30 seconds in advance, it could not only have saved his life but everybody else in the classroom."

St. Joseph's University is backing up its new text-alert program with a siren and public-address speaker in its bell tower. During an emergency, the siren will emit a three-minute warning tone followed by a voice message telling people what to do.

They're hoping the two-step approach will reduce confusion and get people out of harm's way faster, said Bill Mattioli, director of the school's office of public safety. Also new on campus: two more patrol vehicles and 50 more security cameras.

"Colleges and universities all over the country are saying what if, and how best can we respond?" St. Joe's spokeswoman Harriet Goodheart said.

The measures won't prevent a tragedy, but hopefully they will control the kind of chaos that happened in Virginia, said St. Joseph's senior David King, 21, of Drexel Hill, who returned to the Philadelphia campus Wednesday.

At Bucks County Community College, siren clocks are being installed in every classroom and hallway, along with closed-circuit televisions throughout the Newtown campus, swipe cards for every building, and e2Campus.

The cost of the improvements can be huge. Millersville University has budgeted about $250,000 for a mass-alert system, a siren, a 24-hour dispatch service, and shotguns and semiautomatics for its 18-member police force.

"Nowadays, unfortunately, the bad guys have more than sidearms, and you want your police to have equal firepower," said Pat Weidinger, the school's director of safety and environmental health.

La Salle University is spending several hundred thousand dollars on a text system and lower-tech communications, including loudspeakers on patrol vehicles and a public-address system at key locations on campus, said Arthur Grover, director of safety and security.

Schools can look for help from the federal government, which included in the recently renewed Higher Education Act a new grant program to help colleges improve safety and emergency-response plans.

All of those precautions are pointless if a student like Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui is on campus, Bryn Mawr psychiatrist Eileen Bazelon said. With students increasingly in need of psychological support, it's crucial for schools to provide help, she said.

Long before the shooting, Cho exhibited many signs of trouble. By his senior year, he rarely went to class or spoke to other students, and he turned in essays laced with violence. Two female classmates contacted campus police about his disturbing behavior. Yet the college did little to intervene.

To help colleges that may face related situations, Bazelon has organized a one-day conference on Dangerous Behavior on College Campus on Sept. 24. Villanova will hold a similar event Oct. 25.

Administrators need to feel they have options for handling deeply disturbed students that doesn't violate privacy laws, Bazelon said.

"Locking doors is all well and good, but we know that students leave them open and let anybody in," she said. "It's much more important to have an atmosphere on campus where people feel they can come and get help."

What Students Say

"This year, there is a big difference in the quality of security information that I'm receiving. Last year, I didn't know that there was so much dialogue between borough police and the college." - Sofia Rivkin-Haas, 20, a Swarthmore College junior from Berkeley, Calif., who is a resident assistant

"When Virginia Tech happened, one would think that I would feel the same threat level at Swarthmore, but I never had that feeling. My mentality never changed. I feel safe here." - Loretta Gary, 20, a junior from Rose Valley on the Housing and Orientation Committees at Swarthmore

"I haven't seen or heard anything about changes about campus securities. . . . Last year, they talked about reassessing initiatives, but I haven't heard anything yet." - Matt Gelb, 20, a Syracuse University junior from Chalfont

"On a campus like this, kind of in the middle of city, they get information out there on things like mugging. . . . It's hard on any public campus to get good, quality information in a quick manner. . . . That's the challenge with any campus with 10,000 people. They do the best job they can." - Steve Wanczyk, 21, a Syracuse senior from King of Prussia

For other student comments compiled by Martha Marrazza at Swarthmore, Zach Berman at Syracuse and Samuel Dangremond at the University of Pennsylvania go to

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Date Published: Sunday, August 26, 2007 - 01:00
Source URL: The Philadelphia Inquirer