April 21, 2007 in City

Colleges cram on security

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Photos by Brian Plonka photo

Bob Cepeda, associate director of public safety and security at Gonzaga University, walks the campus Friday during a routine patrol.
(Full-size photo)

Campuswide siren systems. Expanded video surveillance. More guns – or fewer guns – on campus.

In the days since the massacre at Virginia Tech, colleges everywhere are examining their emergency plans, communications systems and campus security, and considering changes that could alter the nature of college life.

Washington State University is moving fast to add a system of outdoor speakers for sirens and public messages, something also being considered at Eastern Washington University and the University of Washington. Lawmakers in Iowa debated a measure this week to arm college security officers – something most large public schools already do.

Just how effective such steps will be is another matter. Scores of college officials and safety experts say a system of perfect protection is a fantasy.

As an example, they point to Virginia Tech itself, which has both a siren system and armed police officers on campus.

“There is no perfect plan,” said Jeffery Hart, director of security at Gonzaga University. “Everybody’s looking for that panacea, that magic thing.”

Still, GU is like most schools in the region, in that the Virginia Tech shootings have prompted a review of security plans.

“We have an emergency management plan at the university, and we’re reviewing it and re-examining it in light of Virginia Tech,” Hart said.

Others said that all the security systems in the world are only as good – or, possibly, as lucky – as the humans running them. One of the chief areas of criticism that emerged from the Virginia Tech case is the fact that school and police officials didn’t shut down the campus after the initial two shootings; two hours later, the gunman returned and killed 30 more people.

By contrast, officials at Lewis-Clark State College moved to close campus early Friday based on threats made by a student that Lewiston was going to get “its own little Columbine.” The student was detained, and the campus reopened without incident by mid-morning.

Chet Herbst, the vice president of finance and administration who oversees security at LCSC, emphasized that he wasn’t second-guessing the Virginia Tech decision or comparing incidents. But he said speedy decisions and quick communications are paramount in an unfolding emergency.

“You have to observe, get situational awareness and act on it,” he said.

Re-examination

WSU appears to be moving forward with the most specific new changes, focusing on improving its system of notifying students, faculty and staff in the case of an emergency.

Like most regional schools, WSU now sends blanket e-mails and refers people to a special Web site in case of emergency – a system that is bound to miss a lot of people.

Before this week’s shootings, the school planned to purchase a $165,000 system of public address speakers to be used for emergency sirens and announcements. WSU also planned to develop a broader electronic network of notifications including text messages, cell phones and fax machines. Now those plans are on the fast track, said Christopher Tapfer, coordinator of emergency management at WSU.

The idea, he said, is to use different methods of communication to reach more of the campus.

“Each of these is going to reach a certain segment” of campus, Tapfer said.

The desire on the part of universities to upgrade their security systems has not gone unnoticed in the private sector, officials said.

“We’re hearing from lots of vendors that sell these emergency identification systems,” Tapfer said.

Police presence

The idea of adding sirens seems like the most-mentioned reaction on campuses around the country, but Monday’s shooting also reignited many familiar arguments about gun issues.

Bloggers engaged in a back-and-forth about the wisdom and safety of gun control – some arguing that easy gun access was a root problem in the Virginia Tech case, others pushing the idea that if more people were armed they’d be safer.

The shooting also refocused attention on a familiar issue in recent decades at colleges – whether officers should carry guns on campus.

Most large public schools have an armed police presence of some kind. WSU and EWU have their own police departments, and the UI contracts with the city of Moscow for police services.

Security officers at GU, Whitworth, North Idaho College and the Community Colleges of Spokane don’t carry guns, but rely on local police for support.

Tim Walters, the chief of police at EWU, said it’s vital for trained, commissioned officers to be armed on larger campuses, given the realities of modern violence.

“At Eastern, we’re a small city,” he said. “I think it’s important that the officers be armed.”

Hart’s security forces at Gonzaga don’t carry firearms, though they collaborate with Spokane police officers for security. He said he understands why larger campuses might want to have armed officers on duty, but that the partnership between GU’s security officers and city police is working well.

And he pointed out that the presence of armed officers is no guarantee against violence.

“Virginia Tech had a police department with armed officers, and that made no difference in this case,” he said.

‘Smart cameras’

Video surveillance is another security step that colleges may begin considering more and more. Though Inland Northwest colleges aren’t talking about major expansion of video cameras, at other schools the idea is taking root.

Johns Hopkins University has added banks of “smart cameras” to its campus. The cameras operate on software that recognizes certain suspicious motions – a slow-moving car or a person standing with her arms in the air – and sends an alert to campus security, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

That’s the front edge of surveillance technology, which is likely to attract more interest from administrators after this week’s shooting. In the past, student protests have greeted attempts to add video cameras, but acceptance of the cameras seems to grow along with terrorism and mass violence, officials told the Chronicle.

Campus security officials in the Northwest said video surveillance may deter some students, but that it’s primarily useful after the fact, when crimes are investigated.

Like just about everything under consideration on campuses this week, officials said, video surveillance can be a piece of an improved security system, but that no system can offer the promise that most Americans seem to want: that such violence can be absolutely prevented.

“College campuses are just like any public facility,” said Tapfer. “We’re an open space. There’s no fence around here. We don’t have security scanners at every door.”


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