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University Campuses Face Security Challenges

April 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The Virginia Tech shootings sparked trepidation on college campuses across the country. Threats apparently unfounded forced the evacuation or lockdown of universities in Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Tennessee.

Now we turn to three officials who deal with these worries every day. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is the president of George Washington University. Allen Bova is the director of risk management and insurance at Cornell University. And Melissa Vito is vice provost for student affairs and head of the campus emergency response team at the University of Arizona. In 2002, a nursing student there killed three instructors before taking his own life.

Melissa Vito, I want to start with you, because you’ve kind of lived through this on your campus. It’s a university’s worst nightmare. How do you prepare for it?

MELISSA VITO, University of Arizona: Well, thanks, Gwen. You prepare by trying to have a strong emergency response team in place, with a group of people who know what their roles are, who know how to deal with emergencies, and who can work really well together.

And we had that in place at the College of Nursing shootings, but we also saw that we had some gaps. And so we’ve taken our team and expanded it, made sure that we’ve got faculty representation, student representation, and that it now is a broad-based group that meets monthly for several hours to review all aspects of our emergency response planning.

GWEN IFILL: Allen Bova, let’s talk about that. How is it different to try to come up with a plan, a multilayered plan that Melissa Vito just talked about, on a campus, on a college campus, than it would be anywhere else?

ALLEN BOVA, Cornell University: It’s extremely challenging. It’s extremely challenging. A college campus has hundreds of buildings; it’s spread over many square miles. There’s numerous departments and individuals that you need to consult to try to formulate such a plan.

GWEN IFILL: Yet we heard that student, Allen Bova, just tell Tom Bearden in his tape report that she doesn’t want a real lockdown on campus, that she doesn’t want to be afraid on campus. How do you deal with that attitude?

ALLEN BOVA: I would support that student and their comment. I don’t think that college campuses need to be fortresses or need to have airport security, because I think it would really harm the educational process. Also, I think it would harm us as a society to have such restrictive security.

Security on Campus

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
President, George Washington University
You need the student body and the faculty and the staff to all come together and recognize that security is a consequential 21st-century issue.

GWEN IFILL: President Trachtenberg, your campus is an urban campus, far different from Virginia Tech in that respect, but is this something which is high-profile? Are you having monthly meetings like they are at Arizona State about security? Is this something that you all have to talk about a lot?

STEPHEN JOEL TRACHTENBERG, George Washington University: Yes, I think it's a blend of professionalism and technology, also participation. We are a consensual community, and so you want transparency. You want to use technology. You want to use training, but you also want the students and the faculty and the staff to have ownership of the issue.

It's not something that can be done top-down. This is something that has to come out of the community of the campus. We need everybody on campus to be concerned for each other and to look after each other.

And I urge the students in this direction each year when the freshmen arrive. I say, "Protect each other." And it's not just when they're on campus. It's when they go off campus, as well, into the city. Sometimes they go off, they have a drink or two at a bar, and they're walking back to the university campus. And I want them looking after each other.

GWEN IFILL: President Trachtenberg, your campus is also located not far from the White House. Did that change the kinds of security precautions that you took to secure your campus after 9/11, or do events like this change what you do?

STEPHEN JOEL TRACHTENBERG: Yes, well, we have considerably professionalized our security precautions since 9/11, but they were very good before. And now we've taken them to the point where we have an accredited department of security.

We have now an associate vice president for security, as well as a chief of police. We have our campus police department, but we also have student groups and others that are alert.

This is not something that can be done merely by paid officers, however alert, however good they may be. You need the student body and the faculty and the staff to all come together and recognize that security is a consequential 21st-century issue.

Responding to emergencies

Melissa Vito
University of Arizona
[C]rises tend to be dynamic, and so we need to start with a plan, set goals, and then be ready to adjust as we gather new information.

GWEN IFILL: Melissa Vito, let's talk about how one manages an emergency, especially you never see an emergency coming. But is this something that starts from the campus out with campus security or do you reach out immediately first to local law enforcement or state law enforcement and bring them in?

MELISSA VITO: Well, each emergency is different. And so, on our campus, we immediately convene with our policy group of our campus emergency response team. And we get together as soon as we know of anything, and immediately assess what we know, and then figure out what resources are going to be needed to address the emergency.

So there may be times when we utilize external resources. There may be times when we use our own resources. But we always -- I want to echo the comment made about involving the whole community, because our campus emergency response plan and our team that implements it cuts across faculty, students and then particular areas of expertise across the whole campus community.

And after the College of Nursing, when we redeveloped policies to address threatening behavior and disruptive behavior and looked at the practices that we were following, we involved students, faculty and students and made it a real community effort.

But crises tend to be dynamic, and so we need to start with a plan, set goals, and then be ready to adjust as we gather new information.

Campus notification systems

Allen Bova
Cornell University
Most college campuses are looking at notification systems. Virginia Tech had a notification system that they sent out an e-mail message to students. I know that they have a good risk manager there.

GWEN IFILL: Allen Bova, let's talk about technology, because one of the concerns at Virginia Tech yesterday was that people didn't feel like they got uniform notice. They went to class even after the first set of shootings had occurred.

Is there something that we now know about technology, about instant e-mailing, about some sort of emergency warning system that campus security officials are now talking about and thinking about, not only in the wake of these kinds of incidents, but even anticipating these kinds of incidents?

MELISSA VITO: We know that...

GWEN IFILL: This is for Allen Bova. Just a moment.

MELISSA VITO: I'm sorry.

GWEN IFILL: That's all right. Go ahead, sir.

ALLEN BOVA: Most college campuses are looking at notification systems. Virginia Tech had a notification system that they sent out an e-mail message to students. I know that they have a good risk manager there.

And after this incident, I'm sure they're going to be looking at their notification systems and looking to see what they can do to improve on their existing systems to make them even more robust.

Good risk management is looking after the incident happened, not just on your college campus, but at other campuses and the incidents they've experienced, and evaluating the risk, and seeing whether or not those systems really work, and trying to improve on those systems and processes to make for a safer campus to protect our students, faculty and staff.

GWEN IFILL: When you say "risk management," aren't one of the risks what the mood is of a troubled student? We now know that this student had warning signs. Is part of your managing risk tracking those warning signs?

ALLEN BOVA: Well, those warning signs are very, very difficult to really determine in a lot of cases. And I think what you're really talking about is profiling, and I'm not sure profiling usually works.

Certainly, I think that Virginia Tech, in this particular case, did identify the student. They did take the appropriate action by referring the student to counseling, but this was an extremely troubled individual. And I think too much is placed sometimes on what college campuses did, and not enough really is placed towards the actual person that committed this heinous crime.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, President Trachtenberg? Do you feel like you have a system in place -- if there is a troubled student who is sending out signs, that there's something that you can do about that?

STEPHEN JOEL TRACHTENBERG: No institution is going to be perfect on this. And it's a delicate balance, as has been indicated, between the rights of individuals, both their legal rights and concerns under the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and also the obligations of the university to the larger community.

If you have somebody who you think is a danger to himself or herself or to others, you obviously have some duty to act. And if it turns out you have inadvertently overacted, that's a lot easier to fix than having been too cautious. And so my attitude is, you'd want to protect all of your students, and you want to do it in a macro way, as well in an individual way.

Evaluating lockdowns

Melissa Vito
University of Arizona
I think that the lockdowns, depending upon the situation, you know, may at times create more unease and anxiety, but, again, each situation is individual.

GWEN IFILL: Melissa Vito, we saw today lockdowns on university campuses in four states and a lot of high school campuses around the country, as well, today. Do you think that this sort of thing creates kind of a hair-trigger response which is or is not helpful on campuses after an event like this?

MELISSA VITO: I think it does create a sense of unease among student and faculty populations. And I think one of the challenges in dealing with a crisis is how you deal with the people issues, because you're dealing with people who are normally healthy, functional individuals who suddenly are thrust into the midst of a crisis.

And the challenge for us is how you move those people back to a sense of recovery and normalcy. And I think that the lockdowns, depending upon the situation, you know, may at times create more unease and anxiety, but, again, each situation is individual.

GWEN IFILL: In general, are college campuses safe or as safe as they can be, Melissa Vito?

MELISSA VITO: I believe that they are. And if you look across the numbers of students on our campuses and the numbers of faculty and staff, we have many small cities and towns across this nation, and I believe that generally they are quite safe and that these situations are very unique.

GWEN IFILL: Melissa Vito from the University of Arizona, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg of George Washington University, and Allen Bova of Cornell, thank you all very much.