A year after the Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32, American colleges and universities have made great strides in securing their campuses and protecting their students. The University of Texas at Austin is no exception.
“9/11 was a trigger point to move us towards a lot of things but when Virginia Tech happened we re-looked at our procedures to determine if things needed to be changed,” said Bob Harkins, associate vice president for the Office of Campus Safety and Security.
Harkins said despite all the criticism Virginia Tech received in the days following the tragedy for how it handled the crisis his team would have handled it in a similar way, except for the amount of time it took to send out notifications.
“We have studied it a lot and they didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “The worst thing was that the window of time they waited to notify everyone was two hours.”
Since the shootings the University of Texas at Austin has carried on with plans to enhance emergency notification systems and is continuing to find new ways to enhance safety efforts.
Some of the notification systems the university has in place are an outdoor warning system and Mobile Campus, which sends emergency information via text message to subscribers. It takes about five minutes for the message to be sent to everyone who is signed up, Harkins said. To sign up for the spam free service go to www.https://longhorns.mobilecampus.com/.
“We feel we can get the message to people who are outside the campus. Now we are working on getting the message inside,” Harkins said, referring to people outside on the campus grounds as opposed to inside the buildings.
One way Campus Safety and Security is doing that is by setting up every TV on campus to display emergency messages. This project will be completed by the end of April.
Another project involves upgrading the fire alarm system in 68 buildings on campus. The system allows for emergency announcements to air over a loud speaker but the announcements can only be made from the buildings.
“It is hoped by the start of next school year we can do that from the police dispatch system,” Harkins said.
One new initiative that was created by the Office of the Dean of Students in response to Virginia Tech is the Behavior Concerns Advice Line (BCAL), 512-232-5050. The 24-hour phone service provides support, advice and referrals to students, faculty and staff with concerns about the behavior of a member of the university community.
“The best weapon to prevent a Virginia Tech is the BCAL hotline,” said university Police Chief Robert Dahlstrom. “We get calls and check into people on possession issues. We get about five to eight a month.”
The tip line worked on April 15 when a student called to report seeing another student carrying a gun on campus. The student was then arrested.
The university’s security efforts were measured this spring when Reader’s Digest surveyed 135 colleges and universities about their readiness to handle on-campus threats to safety and security. The university ranked sixth out of 135 schools and received a grade of A.
The Top 10 schools in order were Johns Hopkins University, Northeastern University, Michigan Technological University, University of Kentucky, The University of Texas at Austin, Syracuse University, Washington University in St. Louis, Birmingham Southern College and Seattle University.
The only other Texas school that was surveyed was Texas AandM University, which ranked 133 with a grade of C.
Several urban schools rated higher on campus safety than many schools in suburban areas or smaller cities, emphasizing that preparedness has more to do with appropriate allocation of resources and less to do with geographical setting.
In the past year the university has spent about $660,000 on its major security projects and is working on securing $250,0000 for another project that would place locks inside all classroom doors.
The full survey results can be seen at www.rd.com, along with the methodology used.