Safe and Secure

June 1, 2010
Managing growing security concerns under current budget strains.

The education headlines have been filled with grim news about facility closings, teacher layoffs and program cutbacks. When the economic climate is gloomy, few areas of schools and universities are spared. In areas outside the classroom, such as safety and security, the cuts may be larger and come more quickly.

Yet, the need to provide a safe environment for students, staff and visitors to education institutions has not diminished. For most administrators responsible for campus security, the deadly violence that descended on Columbine High School or Virginia Tech is never far from their thoughts. Lack of funding won’t be an acceptable excuse if security lapses lead to tragedy.

When money is scarce, education administrators seeking to maintain or improve campus security may be able to receive grants or donations to carry out their plans, or look for ways to enhance the safety of students that can be carried out without tapping resources needed elsewhere.

Culture of calm

To address the street violence that has led to the deaths of many Chicago Public Schools students, the city is using $30 million in federal stimulus funds to establish a program aimed at creating "cultures of calm" at 38 high schools. The program will focus on improving attendance, conduct and academic performance.

Last month, Chicago Schools CEO Ron Huberman announced that at six pilot high schools that are part of the program—Farragut, Robeson, Harlan, Julian, Clemente and Manley—third-quarter statistics show that attendance is up, serious behavior problems are down, and the number of students with Ds and Fs has fallen.

Another aspect of the system’s security initiative is a "Safe Passage" program to help high school students in more than 20 high-crime communities get to and from school without falling prey to neighborhood violence.

The district is looking to "create a network of providers who can function collectively as a School Community Watch," says Huberman.

The district chose the schools after reviewing such factors as the number of violent incidents during arrival and dismissal times, the prevalence of gangs, and the number of aggravated batteries with a firearm within the school’s police district.

Another element of the security push is the creation of a mentor program for 3,000 students determined to be among the most at-risk for being victims of violence.

The anti-violence initiatives have two goals, the district says: reducing the likelihood that at-risk students will engage in, or become victims of, violence; and creating a safe and supportive environment for students to improve attendance and excel academically.

Chicago also is using corporate donations to bolster its security. The banking company Chase donated $2.25 million to the school system in December to install 90 security cameras at 40 city high schools. The cameras will send live video feeds to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications Center.

Responding to tragedy

In the aftermath of the 2007 shooting deaths at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, many schools and universities have re-examined their security procedures and systems, and taken steps to provide safer campuses. Virginia Tech itself has made numerous improvements to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy.

More than three years later, the university and federal education officials still are reviewing what happened at Virginia Tech and how university officials responded.

Seung Hui Cho, a Virginia Tech student, shot two students to death in a residence hall on the morning of April 16, 2007. Less than three hours later, Cho opened fire in an academic building. He killed five professors and 25 students and wounded many others before taking his own life.

A preliminary report sent earlier this year from the U.S. Department of Education to Virginia Tech asserted that the university violated the federal Clery Act in 2007 by failing to issue a timely warning about the first deadly shooting at the residence hall. Virginia Tech officials have issued a 73-page response that disputes the education department’s preliminary conclusions.

"It is inconsistent with the regulatory process to hold Virginia Tech to standards that did not exist at the time, or … to hold Virginia Tech to a new Clery Act standard that was developed after—and in response to—the tragic events that occurred on our campus," Virginia Tech emergency management director Michael Mulhare says in the university’s response.

In its response, the university also spells out the equipment upgrades, facility alterations and policy changes it has made to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy, as well as prevent or mitigate less catastrophic crises. Among them:

VT phone alerts: Members of the university community who subscribe to the service receive notifications about campus emergencies. Messages can be delivered as text to mobile phones; as voice recordings to home, office or mobile phones; or as an e-mail message.

VT desktop alerts: A software program enables Internet-connected computers to link with Virginia Tech’s emergency notification system. When an emergency message is posted, the software program will notify the computer user by delivering an audio message and displaying a message window on the desktop that spells out the details of the alert. The user must click a "dismiss" button to return the computer to a normal screen, and the alert application will continue to blink in the computer’s taskbar until university officials clear the emergency message.

Pre-written messages. Virginia Tech has created prewritten templates regarding specific types of emergencies so that warnings and information can be disseminated more quickly. All messages are to include the nature of the incident, the location and what actions should be taken by the people affected.

Electronic message boards. All general-assignment classrooms on campus are outfitted with electronic message boards, and more are being installed in other areas of campus. The boards display the time and date unless a message is sent. The board will sound a brief, audible tone immediately before a message to draw the attention of those on campus to the boards.

Sirens. The siren system on the Blacksburg campus was intended for warnings related to weather or natural disasters, but after the 2007 shootings, the university expanded its functions "to reach people located outside for any type of warning." In addition to sounding a siren, the system can send out personalized or pre-recorded messages

Door security. Entrance and exit hardware have been changed so that doors to classrooms and teaching labs cannot be chained or barricaded. All classrooms and teaching labs now can be secured from the inside. At Virginia Tech’s 44 student housing facilities, all exterior doors are locked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and residents and authorized personnel must use swipe cards to gain access. Guests must be accompanied by residents. At night, security guards are on duty to check for propped doors and try to prevent unauthorized people from entering halls on the heels of a resident who is entering the facility legitimately.

Emergency telephones. Virginia Tech has 65 "blue light" emergency telephones situated throughout the Blacksburg campus; 13 have been added since the 2007 shootings. The phones provide immediate access to a university communications officer.

Radio upgrades. The Virginia Tech police department installed new equipment in its communications center that provides better interoperability between the department and local law enforcement. The campus police department also has acquired a mobile command vehicle so it can establish a command post on or near the site of a campus crisis.

Posters. All classrooms on campus have emergency notification posters on display that tell students, faculty and staff what they should do when a crisis occurs. A similar poster specifically targeted for residence halls is on display at all student housing facilities on campus.

The university also has put greater limitations on access for those within residence halls. Before the 2007 shootings, residence halls were fully accessible from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Now, Virginia Tech has added walls and doors and made other building modifications so that student access in residence halls where they do not live is limited to public spaces.

To facilitate access by first responders and security personnel, all campus buildings now have uniform electronic access systems.

Campus EMS

"It’s the perfect job for a student," says Matthew Ricci, director of operations for emergency medical services at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "We’re used to weird hours, and we’re available overnight and on weekends."

The student-staffed crews respond to emergency calls throughout the campus, Ricci says. On the Lowell campus, the student crews cannot transport patients to hospitals, but their services ease the burden on local ambulance crews.

"We can get there three to five minutes earlier than an ambulance," says Ricci.

Patients with minor injuries can be treated on site by the emergency medical technicians, and an ambulance won’t need to respond. For more serious injuries or illnesses, the EMTs can prep the patients and enable an ambulance to get patients to a hospital more quickly.

The 25 students on the UMass Lowell EMS team have provided coverage at sports events, concerts and other campus activities, and also have been asked to respond to community-wide crises. In December, an ice storm cut off power to much of the area. Using an automated voice-messaging system, Ricci was able to notify his crew members simultaneously about the emergency and summon them to help out.

"I told them to report to a specific location," says Ricci, "and they send a text response to me to say they have gotten the message. That’s a lot quicker than pulling up 30 voice mails. It’s an efficient way to immediately activate resources."

On college campuses, administrators can make their campuses safer at minimal cost by using students as emergency medical technicians. Some programs use volunteers; others pay a stipend to students.

Read the "Dissecting School Violence Numbers" sidebar to learn about the May 2010 report released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Read the "Low-Cost Steps" sidebar to learn about security suggestions from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

Related Stories

Dissecting School Violence Numbers

Most violent incidents connected with school take place inside the school building and are not reported to police, according to a new federal report on school crime. "A Profile of Criminal Incidents at School," released in May 2010 by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that from 2003 to 2005, about 2.9 million thefts and 1.9 million violent incidents occurred at or en route to or from schools.

The report states that the data it has compiled may be useful to school administrators who want to know where or when crime is occurring on their campuses so they can combat crime more effectively. The report found that 54 percent of violent incidents occurred inside school buildings; 35 percent occurred on school grounds outside buildings; and 11 percent happened on the way to or from school. Violent episodes happened more often in hallways or stairwells (41 percent) than in classrooms (29 percent). Five percent of the reported violent incidents occurred in bathrooms or locker rooms.

Nearly three-quarters of those violent incidents (74 percent) were not reported to police; 43 percent of those who didn’t report a violent incident to police said they reported the incident to another official.

Only 10 percent of incidents of school violence involved an offender with a weapon (knives and blunt objects are the weapons reported most often). In 27 percent of the violent incidents, victims reported being injured. The vast majority of those injuries (87 percent) were categorized as bruises, cuts or chipped teeth.

Four-fifths of violent incidents were committed by individuals. Of those, the offender and victim knew each other in 90 percent of the cases. Three-fourths of the violent incidents committed by individuals involved a male offender. In violent incidents committed by multiple offenders, 51 percent were committed by all-male groups, and 30 percent were committed by all-female groups.

Low-cost steps

Some security measures can be a significant drain on the budgets of school districts and higher-education institutions, but administrators can take many low- or no-cost steps to boost campus safety. The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities offers numerous suggestions:

•Keep trees and shrubbery trimmed, and remove obstacles so that there are clear lines of sight that enable school staff, neighbors and passing pedestrians and patrol cars to monitor school grounds.

•Prevent access to roofs and windows by trimming trees and moving objects away from the building that can be used as climbing devices.

•Secure roof hatches, operable skylights, and rooftop equipment doors and access panels—from the inside of the building, if possible.

•Regularly inspect exterior lighting for damage and burned-out bulbs, and make immediate repairs.

•Place traffic-calming devices, such as stop signs, pavement markings and speed bumps, in parking lots and driveways.

•Limit the use of building entrances to one or as few as possible. Adjust locking hardware on all other entrances so they cannot be opened from the outside without a key or other entry device.

•Number or re-number doors and rooms in a logical, sequential, floor-by-floor pattern so emergency responders can find them quickly.

•Ensure that all classrooms, including portables, have two-way communication with the office. Consider providing cell phones, two-way radios, or portable duress alarms to faculty and staff.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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