Cops and Schools Prepare for the Worst

After Monday's deadly shootings at Virginia Tech, some police departments and universities have already developed new security procedures in the event of a similar emergency, while others have taken more of a wait-and-see approach.

Tuesday in Boston, Police Commissioner Edward Davis convened a special meeting between state and municipal law enforcement authorities, Mayor Thomas Menino and administrators from local colleges and universities.

Boston police offered to train armed campus security officers "in ... active shooter techniques," basically teaching officers how to shoot armed suspects, said Elaine Driscoll, director of communications for the Boston Police Department.

Boston and the surrounding areas are home to some 50 colleges and universities, each with its own security department. Some schools have armed accredited police officers, while others have unarmed security guards.

Driscoll also said the city will cooperate with universities to improve protocol, "the real what happens when" in the event of an emergency, as well as "communication between law enforcement personnel and universities, and universities and their students."

She said Boston police would "check our ability to communicate with university police departments on a [designated] radio frequency for immediate communications."

Officials at Harvard and MIT told that they regularly re-evaluate security procedures and cooperate with local law enforcement authorities.

By contrast, police in Philadelphia, also home to a large number of educational institutions, "have not been in touch with local universities. … Local colleges are responsible for their own security," said Officer Yolanda Dawkins, a Philadelphia police spokeswoman.

"In the event of something big, we'll help but we haven't contacted them to develop new measures," she said.

Some campus and municipal police officials contacted by said it was still too soon after Monday's incident, during which 23-year-old Seung-hui Cho killed 33 people on the Virginia Tech campus.

"It's too early to know the lessons learned," said Maj. Cathy Atwell, director of public safety at the University of Maryland, a state school with 26,000 undergraduates in College Park, Md.

"At this point the university president has sent a letter to the campus community outlining current procedures," but Atwell added that no new procedures, including methods to contact students in the event of an emergency, were being considered.

Police officials in the town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., located 90 miles north of New York City and home to three colleges, said they had already contacted officials in Virginia to learn how they had handled the shootings and would be in touch with local colleges to address new security procedures.

Capt. Thomas Mauro of the Poughkeepsie Police Department, like many of the authorities contacted by, said effective communication with students was essential in an emergency.

"We're working on issues about communicating with campuses about emergencies. ... We're proactive about different systems like e-mail and automatic dialers with voice messages. … Some schools have outdoor and indoor PA systems, and others are going back to using sirens."

Virginia Tech authorities were criticized after the shootings for ineffectively communicating with students through e-mail when many of them were in class or commuting to campus.

"Students could have been alerted much quicker than by e-mail and word of mouth. Most students aren't checking their e-mail at 8 a.m. when leaving for class," said Katherine Andriole, assistant program director for the nonprofit organization Security on Campus.

"Most students," she said, "say they have their cell phones on them at all times," and she recommended that students be contacted by text message in the event of an emergency.

The entire freshman class at Montclair State University in New Jersey was issued Rave wireless phones that the school uses to communicate with students in the event of an emergency.

"We began to investigate new technologies about four years ago in large part because e-mail for young people is really passé. … The one thing they always had with them was their cell phone," said Karen Pennington, vice president for student development at Montclair State.

She said the school only sent text messages to students in an emergency and had used it once during a snowstorm and again during a power outage.