Campus protection up a degree

Two campus tragedies within two years – including the Virginia Tech massacre in which 33 people lost their lives, as well as the Valentine’s Day shootings at Northern Illinois University which led to six deaths – have caused universities everywhere to place new emphasis on security and safety.

“Everyone knows they have to do something – but many are paralyzed about what to do next,” says Angelo Faenza, general manager of security product company PERSONA. Fortunately there are numerous steps which universities can take to help keep their campuses safe – without limiting students’ freedom.

Graduate-level challenges
Universities are unique environments that raise significant security issues. Unlike office buildings, college campuses incorporate both residential and workplace facilities, cover large geographic areas, and are inhabited by young students who are not inclined to take precautions. “The college campus environment is really like nothing else,” says Faenza, who has helped many educational institutions with their security needs.

Faenza describes the campus as “a mini city” – a highly diverse environment that also includes many different individuals with roles impacting decisions on security. These players may also have strikingly divergent perspectives: While a security director may want to institute rigorous protection, a housing director may be more interested in students’ quality of life; and the president of the university must balance many competing concerns. Accordingly, creating a comprehensive security system can take time and compromise.

From the outside in
Taking control of perimeter access is vital for security. As Faenza notes, “The perimeter of the building is most important: Who’s coming in, who’s coming out.”  Given the mixed and highly transient populations at universities – including resident and commuting students, faculty, non-faculty staff and locals who may use facilities like libraries and gyms – keys are not appropriate. Prone to being lost or copied, keys also do not allow colleges to assign access based on role, or quickly terminate access.

Quinnipiac University in Connecticut provides an example of how card systems can be implemented. PERSONA locks have been installed in the university’s 22 residence halls, and include logging data capabilities that allow the university to detect which users have entered a room and whether the door has been propped open. Meanwhile, in an added benefit for students, the cards used for door access can also be used to purchase meals, check out books, make copies and access the gym.

Additional recommended best practices include using cameras to monitor building exteriors as well as card readers, to ensure that unauthorized visitors cannot “tailgate” behind someone with an access card. Faenza also suggests that card readers be connected to a central monitoring system. “It allows you to control the building live,” he explains, so universities can quickly block a troubled student who has just been expelled, for example, or limit access to classroom buildings.

Spreading the word
Notification systems have been a particular focus for campus security as well, particularly following the Virginia Tech tragedy. The University of Richmond has implemented a new notification system that matches the way students communicate today, sending messages via text message, e-mail or voice mail in the event of an emergency or something more common-place like a weather-related school closing. Catholic University in Washington, D.C. even lets parents receive alerts.

The alert systems are an important component of a comprehensive security strategy. However, it’s important to make sure that students sign up for the systems when consent is required and keep their contact information up to date. While most systems can import contact information from the school’s existing databases, as Faenza points out, “Notification is no good unless your data is good.”

Indeed, the human element is essential to making a campus secure – particularly if students or staff are not on board. Organizations like the Center for Personal Protection and Safety have developed training to help ensure students and faculty are prepared for emergencies. Their “Shots Fired” program has been adopted by close to 200 colleges in the US, including California State University, the University of Texas and Rutgers, among others.

Ultimately, implementing a successful university program depends heavily on understanding the three P’s: School policies, procedures and people. Creating the right base of support is critical, since the various staff and administrators involved in security planning can slow down or deadlock the process if they refuse to come to agreement. These delays can be avoided if senior leaders make it clear up front that security is not optional – and that when it comes to the final solution, “not everyone is going to get everything they want,” as Faenza notes. But achieving a higher level of security and safety for a university is something everyone can ultimately agree on.

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