Schools Rethinking Security Measures Following Va. Tech Tragedy

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Universities across the state are
rethinking the way they keep their students informed following the
tragedy at Virginia Tech.
The problems that come with reaching a diverse audience quickly
became all too clear at Virginia Tech's Blacksburg, Va., campus on
Monday, when a 23-year-old student shot 32 people to death, then
committed suicide in the largest mass murder in the nation's
history.
Some Virginia Tech students have criticized the way the
university handled the crisis, saying the school should have locked
down the campus following an early-morning shooting at a dormitory
that left two people dead. Instead, the school waited two hours to
put out an e-mail about the incident, about the same time the
gunman entered a crowded class building and began shooting.
E-mail, while widespread, is not always available. Televisions,
though a staple in nearly every dorm and classroom, aren't always
turned on. And a school's Internet home page, while informative,
isn't likely to be a student's first stop for information in case
of emergency.
Northern Kentucky University's answer to getting the attention
of 15,000 students and hundreds of faculty and staff in an instant
may just be a text message away.
The school is working with a Cincinnati phone company on a plan
that would offer cell phone service to all students. The students
could receive a new number through the service or transfer an
existing one. The number would then be registered with the
university, a move school officials hope will make it easier for
students and staff to be reached instantly when something needs
immediate attention.
"That way the university would have access to the cell numbers
to do text messaging, and in my opinion that's where we need to
go," Dean of Students Kent Kelso said. "That's how (the students)
communicate with one another ,and we need to tie into that."
The cell phone plan is among several ideas the state's higher
education institutions are considering to use the lessons learned
by the Virginia Tech massacre to create safer campuses.
The University of Louisville has spent the last five years
updating its emergency response system in an effort to get word out
faster to students, faculty and staff.
From the addition of a public address/alarm system that covers
the entire downtown campus to e-mail "blasts" that can reach more
than 21,000 students in an instant, school officials say they've
been vigilant in trying to keep students safe and informed.
"We feel like we have a good system," spokesman John Drees
said. "(But) we want to look at our communication procedures to
strengthen it, see where we have holes."
The University of Kentucky created an emergency management
office in 2004 to make sure there are first responders on campus at
all times. The school's police force has been through active
shooter response training and school administrators regularly send
out campus-wide alerts through e-mail to notify students and
faculty when a violent crime has been reported.
Still, officials know more can be done to deal with the
logistical problems that arise when trying to offer instantaneous
information to a sprawling campus consisting of students and staff
on constantly changing and vastly different schedules.
The chances of every student, teacher and staff member being on
the computer at the time an e-mail alert is sent out is slim. And
while there are residence hall assistants and security people at
the ready on campus during an emergency, a large portion of
students live in off-campus housing, as do the vast majority of
faculty and staff.
"We look at it as a challenge," UK spokesman Jay Blanton said.
"Universities are very open places that cherish that openness and
freedom. ... How do you balance that (with security)? Safety's a
process, and we've got people constantly reassessing those plans."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-04-18-07 1754EDT


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