Colleges across the country re-evaluate their security systems

PHILADELPHIA – From bigger guns for campus police to mass text-messaging systems to warn of emergencies, schools scrambled this summer to ramp up security and communications systems – part of the fallout from the Virginia Tech massacre in April.

“The challenge is, how do you reach everybody?” said Joe Cardona, a spokesman at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., which held a full-scale drill recently to test new security procedures with a pretend shooter on campus and at least a dozen victims. “Up until now, we sent out e-mails. But who’s checking e-mails during the day?”

That was one of the lessons of Virginia Tech, where most students were unaware that a gunman was roaming the sprawling campus, eventually killing 32 people at two locations. In addition, incompatible systems and cellular and telephone networks jammed by calls hampered rescue efforts, according to an internal review of the shootings released Wednesday.

The tragedy, carried out by a mentally ill student who killed himself after slaying the others, spurred colleges nationwide to examine security systems and to hire more counselors and beef up outreach programs to identify and treat troubled students before they do harm.

At Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., a newly hired counselor will work with resident assistants to seek out people with problems and run group-therapy sessions.

“We found that, like every campus in America, we were behind the ball for a while in our counseling needs,” said Debbie Nolan, dean of students at Ursinus.

In the aftermath of the April 16 shooting rampage, the deadliest by an individual in U.S. history, schools scurried to tighten security. Drexel University in Philadelphia rolled out a new GPS handheld device that allows anyone on campus with a cell phone to communicate with security patrols.

Most schools found that their biggest safety gap was the ability to get in touch with students quickly. To remedy that, many have turned to mass text-alert systems, little used just a year ago and now seemingly as indispensable as libraries.

Omnilert, which makes the e2Campus alert system, said 175 colleges had signed up for the service, up from 30 in April.