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College security dominates legislators' forum

August 23, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - College officials from four states told lawmakers on Thursday about enhanced security in an era when a few campus shootings, including one at Shepherd University, have heightened awareness.

Last month, Virginia Tech - where 33 people died at the hands of a gunman in April - introduced a new emergency alert system, said James A. Hyatt, the school's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

VT Alerts uses text messages, instant messages, phone calls and e-mails to spread the word to students and staff who subscribe.

Hyatt and representatives from Shepherd University, Penn State Mont Alto, Frostburg State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, briefed several area legislators about safety upgrades and concerns at their schools.

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Campus safety was the dominant topic at Thursday's Quad-State Legislative Conference at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg.

In the 1980s, Pennsylvania state Sen. Terry Punt decided that legislators should gather to discuss common issues. It was a Tri-State conference in 1986, and has been a Quad-State event since, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.

This year's conference also touched on tourism and a new CSX truck-and-train terminal that soon will open in Chambersburg, Pa.

Hyatt's presentation came one day after Virginia Tech released the results of separate studies of its security, cooperation, and information and communications in emergency situations.

Hyatt, who led one committee, told legislators that one strength was a great mutual-aid system. More than 30 police and law enforcement agencies responded to the shootings, he said.

His PowerPoint presentation listed several ideas for improvement, including configuring perimeter doors so it would be tough to chain them, installing a centrally monitored closed-circuit TV system and posting emergency text alerts on banner-style electronic signs, with audible alarms.

Frostburg State University President Jonathan Gibralter said that his school, aware that cell-phone alerts won't be effective during class, is installing sirens with noises different from the ones used by firetrucks and ambulances.

Marquee signs and the campus radio station will help spread news of emergencies, too, he said.

Measures such as swipe-card security systems to limit entry to residence halls aren't cheap, said Alan Perdue, Shepherd University's general counsel.

"We spent about $300 for each door," he said. "That piles up very fast."

Other officials said their campuses have the same protection, but students defeat the system by propping open doors.

Colleges also must practice emergency procedures, said Sharon Kipetz, Shepherd's vice president of student affairs.

"The more prepared you are, I think the easier it is to act," she said.

Over the Labor Day weekend last year, when school was not in session, a father shot and killed two of his sons in a Shepherd University parking lot, then killed himself.

The school already had introduced tighter security measures before the shootings.

This week, the school added a cell phone text-message alert system.

Tricia D. O'Neill, a senior adviser of academic affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, told legislators that the Americans with Disabilities Act has allowed more people with mental disabilities to attend college.

However, two federal privacy laws prevent college officials from talking about students whose mental problems might create a danger.

"People err of the side of not sharing (information)," O'Neill said.

O'Neill noted, however, that campus police records don't fall under those privacy restrictions. Also, faculty and students may share observations with each other.

Gibralter uttered what he said was an unpopular truth: No matter what steps a school takes, it's impossible to promise parents that their children will "absolutely, positively" be safe.

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