Killings Focus Attention on Security at Colleges

By Valerie Strauss and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 18, 2007

With the Virginia Tech massacre still fresh in the minds of students returning to campuses across the nation, universities and colleges this fall are taking new steps to address security issues.

The concerns run deep. A new poll suggests that half the students headed to college this year will feel less safe on campus because of the April rampage, in which a Virginia Tech senior killed 32 people before taking his own life.

Some George Mason University students sought a loosening of restrictions on carrying concealed weapons there, saying they want to be in a position to defend themselves if a similar event should occur.

But security-minded GMU officials acted yesterday to strengthen the ban on carrying weapons on campus. Only police officers are exempt from the policy.

"Just as our institution is committed to providing students with the best possible education, we are equally dedicated to establishing the safest possible environment for our students to pursue their educational goals," said Thomas Hennessey, GMU's chief of staff.

Colleges and universities have spent millions of dollars to update emergency procedures since Seung Hui Cho's rampage at Virginia Tech. Some campuses have installed surveillance cameras, and others have installed computer programs that alert students and parents to emergencies. There were numerous complaints that Virginia Tech officials were slow to alert those on campus about the shootings.

This fall, the University of Richmond will use a new notification system that can reach every student by text message, e-mail or voice mail in the event of an emergency. The University of the District of Columbia is installing a public address system to inform students of incidents.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, thousands of students will receive new bookmarks with tips on staying safe.

David Ceasar, 22, a first-year graduate student at George Washington University, said: "Parents who send their kids away to colleges all around the country are always worried about safety and want to keep a watchful eye, but especially in the Washington, D.C., area because we are the nation's capital and the threat of terrorism here is higher."

A new era of security on college and university campuses began with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, school officials say. Those attacks, followed quickly by a national anthrax scare, prompted institutions of higher education to begin revamping their security structures. The sense of vulnerability was reinforced a year later by the Washington area sniper shootings. Security plans have been evolving since.

"Virginia Tech served as another exclamation point," said Sally Weinbrom Kram, director of public and governmental affairs for the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

A survey commissioned by MTV and conducted by the consulting firm OTX asked 200 people heading off to college whether the Virginia Tech shootings will affect how safe they feel on campus this year. Half of them said it would.

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