After the Va. Tech Tragedy, Colleges Question How They Cope With Crisis

After the massacre at Virginia Tech University -- the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history -- university officials across the country are looking at their security policies to see if they could handle a crisis of epic proportions.

Not all are certain their schools could cope.

While campus police officers and representatives from colleges and universities all over the United States say they have confidence in their security plans, they admit they may not be equipped to respond to a major crisis as fast as students can communicate with one another.

"E-mail is almost becoming passé to reach students now," said the University of Florida's Steve Orlando. "We're looking at a system that would give us the ability to reach the students on their cell phones because, as you know, the cell phone is the way to reach students these days."

And though they seem dubious about metal detectors going up in front of classrooms and armed guards watching over dorms, they don't rule out the possibility that campuses may introduce stricter security measures.

"Anytime you have 50,000 young people in one place, you think about those kind of worst case scenarios," Orlando said.

Full coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting on "World News With Charles Gibson," "Nightline," "Good Morning America" and an ABC network special Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT

Before Monday's massacre, the University of Texas at Austin was the site of the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history. On Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed up to the observation deck of the school's landmark tower, pointed a rifle and shot at the ground below for 96 minutes. Sixteen people were killed, 31 were wounded.

Since then, UT Austin has beefed up its on-campus security. Robert Dahlstrom, the university's chief of police, said that his department could handle a crisis on the level of the Virginia Tech massacre.

"We're prepared for something like that here," he said. "We'd do the best job we could. We have the right resources to do a good job, [and] hope that our officers would do a good job, as that is what they've been trained to do."

Dahlstrom explained that UT Austin has a warning system in place that notifies students to take cover inside a building. While it was built for weather-related emergencies, it could be used to warn of a shooter on campus.

The university also uses a mobile alert service to send emergency text messages to cell phones. But students must sign up for the service, and out of UT Austin's 50,000 students, only 8,000 to 9,000 subscribe, according to Dahlstrom

Can Security Catch Up to Technology?

The shootings at Virginia Tech highlighted the inability of the university to warn students as fast as they could alert each other. Students didn't receive notice from the school acknowledging the danger on campus until more than two hours after the first shooting.

"The university community is urged to be cautious," an official e-mail sent at 9:26 a.m. said, "and are asked to contact Virginia Tech police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case."

Instead of depending on the school or e-mail for information, students relied on text messages and social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace to get in touch with one another. Officials at other schools agreed that e-mail is no longer the best way to get in touch with an increasingly tech-savvy student body.

"We probably would send out an on-campus e-mail, but that's kind of old-fashioned for some students," said Paul Statt of Amherst College, speculating about what his school would do in the event of a crisis. "I suppose we should send out text messages or IMs or something."

The University of California at Berkeley has piloted a system dubbed Push that can send emergency alerts to subscribers' computer desktops.

"You subscribe to it and every time we put a crime alert…it goes to your desktop and flashes an alert. In the little box, it gives it a synopsis," explained Mitch Celaya, the university's assistant chief of on-campus police.

At Northwestern University in Chicago, Ill., administrators are in talks with communications systems creator the NTI Group about bringing a mass notification program to the campus. Specifically, they're interested in Connect-ED -- a Web-based service that allows administrators to connect with tens of thousands of people by sending alerts to their cell phone, landline, emergency contact number and e-mail simultaneously.

While it may sound sophisticated, it would be relatively cheap for Northwestern to offer Connect-ED to students.

A spokesperson for the NTI Group said the service costs $2 to $3 per student. That means the university would have to pay between $28,000 and $42,000 to give its approximately 14,000 students Connect-ED. For a university that charges about $33,000 a year for undergraduate tuition and has an endowment of nearly $6 billion, that seems a small cost to enhance campus security.

On other campuses, security hasn't caught up to technology. While the safety policies of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's on-campus police force are comprehensive, they're more 1997 than 2007.

"We can send out a mass e-mail. We also have reverse 911," said Sgt. Jason Whitney. "We can pick a certain section or the entire campus and call each telephone line and leave a recorded message so that people know what's going on. But it's just landlines."

The University of Florida also uses a reverse 911 program and is looking into expanding it to include cell phone numbers. And, at the University of California at Los Angeles, students are encouraged to take initiative and program local dispatch phone numbers into their cell phones.

But even some technology-focused institutions -- schools that would logically be at the forefront of fast communication -- depend on the most basic form of contact to get messages across.

"I'm afraid that we don't have anything high tech that does it," said Sally Post of Texas Tech University. "It would be e-mails, the Web site or human to human contact."

Future of Campus Security Uncertain

University officials were reluctant to say if the Virginia Tech massacre would bring tighter security to U.S. campuses. But all of them said they would re-evaluate their safety plans as more details from the shootings emerged and emphasized the importance of being prepared -- even if it can't always prevent tragedy.

"I just don't know how you prevent this other than you make sure your campus is aware and to call the police department as soon as they see anything unusual," said Dahlstrom.

Beefing up security on sprawling campuses isn't easy. Officials at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Florida said deploying guards and metal detectors on wide open, easily accessible acreage is probably not feasible. Beyond that, it's bound to be contentious, and could change the landscape of the college campus as Americans know it.

"For something like that to be implemented, it would be extremely time-consuming and a lot of man hours," said Whitney. "And in this day and age, it's a topic that would have great debate."