The deadly attack at the Virginia Tech campus in April 2007 is yet another horrific chapter in the ongoing story of campus security. The possibility of extreme violence is the new reality for students, staff and the rest of the education community.
The task for school and university administrators is to adapt to that new reality and try to find ways to prevent such events from recurring. The plans will be imperfect. However, in striving to correct flaws in their emergency preparedness plans, school officials may be able to prevent a violent episode or intervene before it leads to tragedy.
“While we can never eliminate the threats posed to our campuses by crime or disaster, natural or person-caused,” Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt's Task Force on Campus Security says, “we can and must mitigate impact through effective all-hazard emergency preparedness.”
The desire for answers and to learn lessons from these tragedies drives education administrators and security professionals to sift through the evidence and find ways they can plug any holes in their security plans and emergency preparedness.
Missouri was one of many states that reacted to what happened at Virginia Tech by re-examining the readiness of crisis plans on its own campuses. In addition, federal agencies and other organizations have stepped forward with recommendations for improving campus safety.
When an attack occurs that is as horrific as the one that befell Virginia Tech, the immediate response of many government and education officials is that something must be done — crisis plans reviewed, recovery efforts bolstered, more security personnel deployed, more access control and surveillance equipment installed and more prevention programs initiated.
The responses to crises will vary from school to school and depend on the conditions and characteristics of each campus. As the Missouri task force notes, a research institution housing a nuclear reactor has security needs vastly different from a small liberal arts school in a rural area.
In North Carolina, the Campus Safety Task Force focused its report on the four phases of crisis management: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. The report recommends that campuses establish threat assessment teams to help faculty, staff and students recognize signs of mental illness and improve their awareness about the resources available to help people who are a danger to themselves or others.
“Identifying potentially violent students as early as possible is one of the best preventive measures a campus can take,” the North Carolina report says.
One of the issues that arose after Virginia Tech was whether schools and universities risked violating student privacy if they shared information with other agencies about a student viewed as a potential threat. In response, the U.S. Department of Education is revising the guidelines related to the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act to clarify to what extent schools are allowed to provide private student information to others.
Schools should strive to remove the stigma associated with mental illness so that troubled students can seek treatment.
“Colleges and universities must challenge the prevailing social norms of students that frown upon seeking help,” the Missouri task force says.
In addition, campuses should make treatment more available. “Emotional crises often happen at inconvenient times, when students and other members of the campus community lack access to high-quality mental health services,” the task force says.
A common language
To improve preparedness, schools and universities should make sure their emergency plans are compliant with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. NIMS establishes standardized procedures for emergency responders.
“With responders using the same standardized procedures, they will all share a common focus, and will be able to place full emphasis on incident management when a Homeland security incident occurs,” the department says. “In addition, national preparedness and readiness in responding to and recovering from an incident are enhanced since all of the nation's emergency teams and authorities are using a common language and set of procedures.”
The Missouri task force notes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers training in NIMS and its Incident Command System (ICS), but “these resources often go untapped by senior executives who will be required to serve as incident commanders in a crisis.”
The Missouri report recommends that each campus should designate someone to coordinate emergency operations and that person should make sure the school's “senior staff is trained in and familiar with NIMS and ICS.”
Part of complying with NIMS, the North Carolina task force says, is making sure that a campus has established aid agreements so that outside agencies can assist them when a crisis occurs.
“All campuses, particularly those without sworn police officers, [should] develop and enter into agreements with key partners, such as local law enforcement agencies and first responders,” the North Carolina report says.
The Missouri task force found that only 28 percent of higher education institutions had coordinated the development of their emergency plans with local law enforcement.
Getting the word out
One of the key findings in the reviews of what happened at Virginia Tech was that universities need to make a more exhaustive effort to spread the word about campus emergencies. Many have criticized the Virginia Tech response because campus officials, believing the assailant had left the campus, did not send out a campus-wide alert until two hours after the initial killings took place.
The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Officers (IACLEA) spells out what it believes a campus notification system should include in a “blueprint for safer campuses” that was released earlier this year.
“Institutions should have an array of means and methods to disseminate information to the campus community during emergencies,” the blueprint says. “Mass notification systems must include multiple means of sharing information, including high-technology and low-technology.”
To maximize the effectiveness of a system, campus administrators and public safety officials need to have the ability to send emergency messages whether they are on or off campus, the association says.
IACLEA adds that education institutions should make sure such systems meet these criteria:
MULTIPOINT COMMUNICATIONS: The system should be capable of reaching its audience through multiple points of contact, such as voice messages, e-mail, and text messaging.
CAPACITY: The system vendor should have sufficient, demonstrated capacity to deliver all messages quickly and reliably.
CLIENT CARE: A contract with a third-party vendor should include training, customer service and technical support.
EXPERIENCE: A vendor should have significant experience delivering calls at institutions of various sizes across the country.
ASSESSMENT: The service should have reporting capabilities that allow the institution to monitor, manage and measure the system's effectiveness.
The association emphasizes that an alert sent out to the campus community should be timely, accurate and useful to the recipients.
When an emergency occurs on a campus, communication among various agencies is critical.
“Interoperable communication systems allow two or more responding agencies, even those using disparate communications systems, to exchange information directly,” IACLEA states in its blueprint for safer campuses. “With interoperability, on-scene personnel can quickly access each other to coordinate needed rescue and emergency activities.”
The North Carolina task force recommends that campuses partner with law enforcement to ensure interoperability. Illinois has created a Statewide Radio Communications for the 21st Century network (Starcom21) to provide first providers with a single interoperable communications system. The state has provided more than 300 Starcom21 radios to 70 higher education institutions, including Northern Illinois University, which used them when responding to the fatal shooting of five people on campus in February 2008.
Emergency plans should include provisions for counseling services after an incident, the North Carolina task force says. That is especially true for victims and their families. A survey by the North Carolina Department of Justice found that 81 percent of college campuses in the state had developed plans to provide counseling to students, staff and faculty after a crisis, but only 39 percent of campuses had a plan to communicate with victims and families after a crisis.
Schools and universities are finding that technological advancements can help them carry out their emergency plans more effectively and keep campuses safer.
“Equipping campus facilities with electronic card access and key systems, and customized access privileges for students, faculty and staff is one infrastructure measure that greatly enhances the security of a campus,” the New Mexico Governor's Task Force on Campus Safety says. “Integrating all security systems into a single network will make monitoring more effective, reduce theft and vandalism and help people feel safer on campus.”
Other security equipment and strategies that schools and universities should consider, the task force says, include cameras, remote panic stations, lighting, landscaping and designation of safe areas. The most effective time to include such security is when schools are planning their facilities.
“In the post-9/11 world, the public has an expectation that colleges and universities will take reasonable steps to provide safety for campuses,” the New Mexico report says. “In order to fulfill this expectation, it is critical that security components and standards are considered as buildings are designed.”