Dialing 911...in Reverse
Boosting security with cellphone alerts
A few years ago, officials at Montclair State University took a lesson from their students: E-mail is, like, ancient history. "It was clear [students] communicated ... via text messaging," says Karen Pennington, who oversees the school's student development programs.
So the suburban New Jersey school of 16,000 students joined with an upstart company, Rave Wireless, to create a system for students to receive official university text alerts on their cellphones-about something as ordinary as a snow day or as terrifying as a gunman on campus. Since then, about 70 universities have signed up as officials across the country turn to technological innovation and muscular security to boost safety.
College cops. Law enforcement experts say the safest schools are those with a professional police force-or well-trained security officers working in conjunction with local officers. Either way, the best college cops meet with school counselors to review troubling cases while fostering relationships with residential assistants and students.
Still, many believe that no amount of security can stop a lone wolf from attacking. That's why information may be a school's best weapon. At Connecticut's University of Bridgeport-in a tough neighborhood-students carry a personal alarm device, similar to a car remote. Pressing the button sounds an alarm in the campus security office and identifies where the student is. The university has also increased lighting and arranged free fare on city buses.
But the cellphone alert service- called reverse 911 when a voice message is used-is what's likely to take higher education by storm. Rave Wireless has received about 130 inquiries from colleges since the Virginia Tech shooting. At Montclair, all incoming freshmen now receive cellphones with numbers programmed into the university system. Montclair uses a Rave service that turns the phones into tracking devices at the push of a button on the phone, allowing officers to pinpoint locations. With the Web-capable phones, students can also view live feed from security cameras to peek at dark parking lots or even see if the gym is full. E-mail can't do that.
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.