Getting the Message

Deadly shootings on college campuses have put schools on alert


My dad called me the day of the Virginia Tech shooting. "I felt like talking to you…just wanted to see how you're doing."

That's code for, "I wanted to make sure you're okay. I was worried." He had a right to be. I'm a student at Winthrop University, an environment where reason and understanding are supposed to thrive, and the last place you'd expect to see violence. But since the incident at Virginia Tech last April, we have come to realize that college campuses aren't isolated from the problems of society.

Louisiana Tech, Louisiana State, and most recently Northern Illinois have experienced deadly violence since the Virginia Tech massacre horrified the nation. Colleges and universities in the Charlotte area are working on improving how to not only prevent such incidents from occurring but also how to respond more efficiently if they do.

"It got everybody reevaluating what they had," says Winthrop Police Chief Frank Zebedis. "Even though it happened in Virginia, it hit here, too. You start to think what if that happens here?"

Winthrop and UNC Charlotte, taking their cues from Virginia Tech, and Queens University, after a murder in Myers Park near campus in December, have implemented text-message alert systems. One computer can immediately send a text message to thousands of students, faculty, and staff if there is a crisis on campus. Some universities, including UNCC, have integrated all of their communication systems, including campus phones, Web sites, hot lines, and display panels in buildings to allow for broadcast messages to reach almost everyone at once.

"You try to get the message out to as many people in as many ways as you can," says Morgan Roseborough, director of business continuity planning at UNCC and a member of the school's security systems team.

Still, sometimes technology isn't enough. Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge had the opportunity to use its text system when a murder occurred on campus in December. It failed, and 14,000 students were left unaware of the threat to their safety. LSU campus police aren't sure why the system failed, but they now believe they have fixed the problem and are running tests.

Zebedis says planning is one thing, but practice is another. "When you're dealing with computers, electronics, and human beings, there's a chance of failing."

"Morgan makes sure that we test," says Marlene Hall, director of police and public safety at UNCC. Inclement weather has provided opportunities to make sure the systems work efficiently. Both Winthrop and UNCC sent out alerts recently during snow days to inform students and faculty of class cancellations.

The schools' personnel believe they're better prepared than they were a year ago, but this doesn't mean they're letting their guard down.
"It's a lot safer than a shopping mall or a theater," Roseborough says. "You can tell people all day long [that they're safe], but that doesn't prevent things from happening."