After Terrorism and Shootings, Colleges Find High-Tech Ways to Contact Students in Crisis

After Virginia Tech shootings, colleges turn to cutting-edge security.

January 08, 2009, 1:04 AM

Aug. 20, 2007 — -- When Ron Chicken returns to Montclair State University in New Jersey as a junior this fall, he'll bring along his private security guard.

That's his Rave cell phone — a fantastical device he was required to buy from the university that not only gives him train schedules, class assignments, movie times and news, but a direct link to the campus police.

"It's almost like a BlackBerry," said the 20-year-old classics and religious studies major. "It has dandy features like giving me the live shuttle bus schedule on a cold rainy night, and it's a tracking system that provides for my safety," Chicken said.

The device's "safe walk" feature lets students set a timer when they want police to watch over them as they cross a dark campus. Police are notified when students arrive at their destination and — and if they don't, a police officer is dispatched immediately.

The device has other features so that Montclair administrators can contact students in case of an emergency.

The Mobile Guardian software used on the phones is made by Rave Wireless Inc. and is one of many security technologies colleges are using in after the campus tragedy at Virginia Tech.

In the five months since Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty members on campus before fatally shooting himself, colleges around the country have implemented multilayered security plans, buying up an array of technology that will enable them to communicate quickly with students and faculty in a crisis.

From Rutgers University to Ohio State, colleges are evaluating everything from physical security to mass e-mail capabilities, text messaging and even old-fashioned sirens and loudspeakers.

"Virginia Tech was such an awful tragedy that everyone is now taking security seriously," said Catherine Bath, executive director of Security on Campus, a nonprofit organization founded 20 years ago in honor of murdered Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery.

"No one has brushed it off," said Bath.

Security on Campus was responsible for congressional passage of the Clery Act, which requires detailed and timely crime reports from campus law enforcement agencies. The organization closely monitors security issues on campuses and often files complaints against those schools that don't comply with the statute.

This year, Montclair State won the Security on Campus Clery Award for the implementation of its new cell phone technology.

"It's the most sophisticated communication in place," said Bath. "Rave changes the face of campus safety."

The Rave-enabled device could have been a lifesaver at Virginia Tech. It has a panic button that can alert police in a hostage situation or whenever a student feels threatened — even in cases of unwelcome advances at drunken fraternity parties.

The system is now used at 70 other colleges, including the University of North Carolina and Cal State University.

Officials at the University of South Florida have said they are trying to get students to subscribe to another Rave emergency service called MoBull Plus.

At Montclair State, a campus of 16,000 students located just 13 miles from New York City, the college felt the emotional reverberations of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

After researching the latest in cutting-edge communications, the college implemented a five-year plan to require all students to buy these customized cell phones. They were so popular that 1,000 upperclassmen also purchased the devices.

The Rave phones work in tandem with the college's 34 armed police officers, who regard them as a student's "smart escort," according to campus police Chief Paul Cell.

Students who are walking to the library or back to the dorm late at night can set a timer that triggers a passive alarm on a 52-inch plasma screen at campus police headquarters.

If the student does not disable the alarm on arrival, the system goes into active alarm. Within three seconds the number of the cell, the cell phone user, the phone's location and all of the student's personal information — like photos and medical records — appear.

Police then make a call to the student and send an officer to the scene. The phone also has a "panic button."

"In one case last year, a girl forgot to deactivate the system and police were sent out," said Cell. "But she was happy we responded."

The cell phones also work off campus during breaks and summer vacations. If a student is in an emergency situation anywhere in the country with an active Global Positioning System, the student can push the panic button and Montclair State can respond by calling police on location.

"It's amazing technology," said Cell. "And the parents love it."

School administrators can also send mass text messages to students on the phones in any crisis. So far, the system has been used only for a weather closing and a campus power failure.

Other security outfits like Omvox Telecom Corp., Mobile Campus, Ed-Alert and MessageOne have issued news releases detailing how their products can ward off or minimize the damage of another Virginia Tech.

Campus emergency text-messaging service Ed-Alert said inquiries regarding its system have risen 90 percent since the shootings.

The security firm NICE Systems, which has video cameras monitoring 85 percent of public places in New York City, is pushing its NICEVision system, a video surveillance setup that goes beyond merely recording events and instead analyzes action by dissecting the speed, direction and duration of frame-by-frame activity and can set off alarms accordingly. The system already is in more than 100 schools.

NAPCO Security Systems offers a panic-button device similar to Rave's that are on key chains or pendants. The NAPCO system, which uses radio waves to find student locations, is in use at dozens of schools including Brigham Young and New York City's Columbia University.

Boston University, Southern Methodist University and New York University have bought communication services from New York City-based Send Word Now, which has expanded its marketing to educational institutions.

Sales are now "through the roof," according to company spokesman Lisa Alloca. The company has traditionally provided time-sensitive messaging to government agencies and global corporations.

"Schools need to be able to get the word out and send it, get responses back and have real time results," said company CEO Tom Shoemaker.

"Sales have been brisk," doubling in the last three years, Shoemaker said. "When something like this happens, there is a general awareness and it piques people's interest."

Boston University is ready to launch its system, which will be able to blast out vital messages to all 50,000 members of the community via voice mail, e-mail or text. Students, faculty or staff can have up to five text or five voice numbers in the database.

"It gives us a sense of confidence to do the best we can to protect our students," said Peter Fiedler, vice president of administrative services. "Virginia Tech woke us all up to potential crises and the need to alert students as part of our responsibility for taking care of them."

Send Word Now also allows the university to quickly conference call with key administrators or public safety officers and to give students instructions on how to proceed.

"When you have a real emergency, some messages have proven to go out better than others," Shoemaker said. "In 9/11 the land lines and cell towers were blocked."

Students can also respond to the message to indicate they got the message and are "OK" or are "hurt and need assistance," he said. The software also provides audit trails so universities can measure the success of their communications.

"Virginia Tech really highlighted how we need to be prepared," said Bath of Security on Campus.

"It's not a stretch of imagination to have another terrorist threat in this country," she said. "I tell college campuses that they should have systems in place even if you never have to use it for anything more than a tornado warning."

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