What about us

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) Cell phone text messages. Loudspeakers on towers. Cameras that detect suspicious activity.

Missouri Southern and other colleges and universities are considering these and other measures in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, seeking to improve how they get the word out about emergencies to thousands of students across sprawling campuses.

One of the students at Virginia Tech, Sarah Hurt, premed and Spanish major, said the gravity of the situation hasn’t hit her yet.

“One of my close friends died in the classroom,” she said. “I keep going over the last time I saw her over and over again.”

For Missouri Southern, the safety issue is an optimistic one.

“I feel we are getting more secure all the time,” said Ken Kennedy, Southern’s director of public safety. “We are moving closer to 24-hour dispatch here in the office, and we have monitors and camera monitoring the perimeter of the campus, which we feel has enhanced the safety of students and faculty here on campus.”

Kennedy said if the situation warranted making changes in operation, then those changes would be addressed.

“If we needed to change policy, if we needed to change practice to ensure that students and faculty were safer, then we would not be opposed to making those changes,” he said.

As a member of the Missouri College Law Enforcement Administration, Kennedy said that the actions they will take in any situation would be proactive.

“Most departments on campus have had training on how to respond to an incident on campus like a shooting,” he said. “Also, the first officers to arrive, be it two or four, would form a team and go in and take care of the situation. In times past, officers were used to detain the situation and wait for SWAT to arrive to handle the situation, as was the case at Columbine.

“With the Joplin Police Department, we train in active shooter scenarios. We go in and take care of the problem, because waiting for SWAT while innocent people are being killed is unacceptable.”

The University of Washington in Seattle is weighing whether to use warning sirens. Clemson University in South Carolina recently installed a similar system for weather-related emergencies and now may expand its use.

“You’re going to see a nationwide re-evaluation of how to respond to incidents like this,” said Jeff Newton, police chief at the University of Toledo.

Chuck Green, director of public safety at the University of Iowa, said school officials were discussing a new outdoor warning system just a day before the Blacksburg shootings. The technology would allow for live voice announcements as well as prerecorded messages.

“We’d like the option to hit one button to reach large numbers of people at one time,” he said.

Virginia Tech officials did not send an e-mail warning about a gunman on campus until two hours after the first slayings, drawing criticism that they waited too long and relied on e-mail accounts that students often ignore.

“I am so tired of people blaming the police and school officials on this,” Hurt said. “No one knew this would happen. The police did what they could.”

Even with understanding students, some officials keep investigating the ways to keep campuses safe.

“Would a blast e-mail have been the most effective tool in notifying people of Monday’s events?” asked John Holden, a spokesman for DePaul University in Chicago. “Some of the coverage I’m seeing suggests that old-fashioned emergency alarms or broadcast announcements would probably have been more effective.”

At many schools, officials want to send text messages to cell phones and digital devices as a faster, more reliable alternative to e-mail.

“We have to find a way to get to students,” said Terry Robb, who is overseeing security changes at the University of Missouri.

Despite Monday’s events at Virginia Tech and Wendnesday’s scare at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, students at Southern feel relatively safe.

“For the most part, I feel like we are safe here,” said Vincient Kyser, junior psychology major. “There is no way to completely control who comes on to campus.”

“Personally, I feel safe because I’m not going to live in fear of something could happen. I am cautious and aware of what is going on around me,” said Danielle Dunn, senior mass communication major. “The same thing that happened there could happen in Joplin, Mo. I don’t think we are protected, I don’t think we live in this little bubble. I think it could happen, but I’m not going to walk around in fear. Our campus security do work to protect us, and I think they are aware of the situation and we need to be cautious.”

For Missouri Southern students, many are in disbelief.

First, I wondered how someone could get to the point that they would want to shoot anybody, regardless of who they were,” said Vincent Kyser, junior psychology major. “You can relate to it. When they were giving people on the phone, locked in their rooms, you know it could happen to me. I don’t feel like it could happen here, but I suppose it could.”

Dunn knows one of the students at Virginia Tech.

“She was a contesting in the Junior Miss USA contest the same year I was in the pageant,” she said. “I was Oklahoma, and she was either Virginia or West Virginia.”

Many schools consider texting a key way to reach this generation of students. “They consider e-mail snail-mail, and really don’t use it as much,” said John A. Fry, president of Franklin & Marshall College, near Lancaster, Pa.

The University of Memphis plans to build a system that will act as a school-wide intercom. Scheduled to be in place by this fall, it will feature speakers mounted on three or four tall poles.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, officials installed more than 100 “smart” cameras after two off-campus slayings. The cameras are linked to computers that detect suspicious situations, such as someone climbing a fence or falling down, and alert not only campus security but also Baltimore city police.

Using text messages would require students to provide personal cell phone numbers _ an intrusion that many colleges and universities have until now been reluctant to pursue, said Howard Udell, chief executive officer of Saf-T-Net AlertNow, a Raleigh, N.C., company that specializes in campus security.

Cell phone numbers “have to be as vital as your Social Security number,” he said. “I don’t think it’s been a priority.”

The Virginia Tech massacre could bring about widespread safety reforms at colleges and universities, much as the Columbine shootings in Colorado led to security improvements at primary and secondary schools, Udell said.

Text-message alert systems are already in place at some schools, including Penn State University, which started its program in the fall. The system has transmitted 20 emergency messages since its start, ranging from traffic closures to weather-related cancellations or delays.

At the University of Minnesota, 101 of the university’s 270 buildings have electronic access devices. A control center can selectively lock and unlock doors, send emergency e-mail and phone messages, and trigger audio tones and messages. Video cameras monitor 871 locations around the university, and radio networks link the university with police.

California State University in San Bernadino, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has experience dealing with emergencies. It was evacuated in 2003 because of wildfires and closed again last year because of high winds.

After all is said and done, Hurt said this experience is something to learn from.

“This restores your faith in people,” she said. “All the people that reach out to you, you have no idea how touching it is. We feel mad, sad, happy for our friends who made it and we just can’t understand what is happening. It will get harder when the numbness wears off.”