Toward a Safer Campus
The ivory tower is more secure than ever, but more safeguards may still be needed
Along with improving their police forces, schools have limited access to campus buildings, especially dorms. Most schools now require students to carry identity cards, many of which have magnetic strips that allow the IDs to double as key cards. Schools also have invested in illuminated call boxes, features that create an atmosphere of security and cut response time, security experts say.
Emergency E-mail. On the technology front, campuswide E-mail systems allow schools to notify the entire student body of an emergency-provided they are in front of their computers. Closed circuit television cameras are becoming more common, sometimes coupled with computers that can recognize suspicious behavior. The University of Iowa has even installed a siren warning system, though it's been used only to warn students about tornadoes.
Steven Healy, director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, says many colleges and universities may purchase mass-notification systems. "As students have moved away from land lines and are more dependent on cellphones and text messaging," he says, "we need to have a capability to reach out to them."
Schools are also taking steps to learn more about the students they admit. Last year, the Common Application, used by nearly 300 schools, added a question asking if the applicant had ever been the subject of disciplinary action in high school, been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony, or been suspended. After the shooting death of a basketball player four years ago, Baylor University began running background checks on some of its potential student athletes. After two students were killed by fellow students at the University of North Carolina's Wilmington campus in 2004, the school began running background checks on students with unexplained gaps in their transcripts. (The killers in both cases had not disclosed their criminal histories to the school.) Based on the new checks, 101 applicants were rejected for admission.
Reforms. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, reformers have called for timelier reporting of campus crimes, a greater police presence on campus, and even-arguing self-defense-a repeal of bans on carrying concealed weapons. Those and other measures will be debated in congressional hearings next week.
In the end, though, campus security must be balanced with a university culture that prizes individual freedom and tends to bridle at control. "There is always a tension between preserving student privacy and protecting safety," says Larry Faulkner, the former president of the University of Texas. "But the openness of a university campus has tremendous value."
Indeed, it was Faulkner who, in 1999, made the controversial decision to reopen the iconic tower that had served as a killing platform in 1966 and that had been closed since a spate of suicides in 1975. "There was a stigma for the school because the shootings were a unique event," he says. "And it was only with the passing of time that the campus began to heal itself."
With Silla Brush, Elizabeth Weiss Green and Bret Schulte