Massacre at Virginia Tech Prompts Security Upgrades at Local Colleges

George Mason University will lock academic buildings, including at the Loudoun campus, after business hours. Dorm entry will require key cards.
George Mason University will lock academic buildings, including at the Loudoun campus, after business hours. Dorm entry will require key cards. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Students and faculty returning to George Mason University's four Northern Virginia locations this fall will move less freely around campus as a result of new security measures adopted since the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in April.

When classes resume Monday, academic buildings will be locked during non-business hours. Dormitories will have key-card systems, allowing only residents to enter. And more university police officers will regularly patrol GMU's campuses in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties to create a more visible presence and make students and faculty feel more secure, officials said.

Perhaps most noticeable to the GMU community will be a new notification system allowing students and faculty to receive emergency text messages on computers and cellphones. Subscribers will be able to choose from topics such as weather or traffic alerts. Information regarding a health or safety crisis will go out to all subscribers. Such information will also be broadcast over radios and loudspeakers inside and outside campus buildings, though that measure is not in place yet.

"The efforts that have been made at Mason coincide with our fundamental mission of not only providing students with the best possible education they can get but also an environment in which they can pursue their educational goals safely," said Dan Walsch, a university spokesman.

Such measures are being taken at universities across the nation. On Aug.13, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) sponsored a day-long workshop in Richmond to discuss improving safety at the state's college campuses.

"When Tech happened, it was just human nature -- we all felt a little vulnerable and nervous," Walsch said. "We all thought, 'Geez, this could have happened here. It could have happened anywhere.' "

Other steps GMU will take include training faculty and staff members to recognize troubling behavior and to steer an individual toward help. In addition, about 50 campus police officers have been certified and trained by the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy to handle an "active shooting incident."

The university has also established a crisis management team to handle emergencies including a hurricane and a gas leak. The team includes counselors, police and campus leaders.

Some measures, such as installing key-card systems at dormitories and training faculty, will take time to fully implement, Walsch said.

One step GMU officials have taken is clarifying the university's concealed-weapons policy: No one may carry guns into campus facilities. The school had a similar policy in place before the Tech shootings, but officials could find no record that the Board of Visitors had enacted it and worried that it would not stand up in court.

The new policy is a disappointment to gun-rights advocates, who have said since the Tech shootings that GMU and other universities should remove their weapons bans.

"It's backwards," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. "They looked at what happened during the shooting and they came up with the wrong conclusion.

In the end, if there had been a chance that somebody could have been in there [with a gun], it could have easily turned this thing around."

GMU President Alan G. Merten said the new measures are essential to ensuring security, but he also said he is mindful of not wanting to create a chilling effect on the open atmosphere required of a university.

"The issues of openness and security are ones our entire nation has been struggling with since September 11, 2001," Merten wrote in a recent description of the new security measures. "A healthy balance between the two can be made so long as it is not done under an umbrella of fear."

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