A Phased Approach to Campus Safety and Security Planning

Immediately after the Virginia Tech shootings, campus administrators across the country began to ask,“How can we prevent this from happening at our institutions?” The short answer is that these types of events can never be prevented 100 percent of the time, no matter what measures are taken. However, initiatives can be undertaken to mitigate, respond to, and recover from these types of violent incidents.

Administrators at South Texas College (STC) were no different in trying to ensure a safe and secure environment for faculty, staff, and students while attempting to maintain the collegiate, open atmosphere that colleges want to project. The leadership at STC had been proactively developing safety and security procedures prior to the Virginia Tech tragedy. This is attributable, in part, to the college’s past history with on-campus violence. During registration for the Spring semester in January 1998, an attempted robbery left one security guard dead, several students wounded, and a community in shock. Administrators, faculty, and staff felt as though they were not really prepared for such an event but got beyond the tragedy through the resilience of everyone involved and the support of the community.

In the almost ten years since the shooting at STC, the campus has been quiet, with no major incidents. However, Dr. Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College, had been hearing from faculty and staff about rising levels of incivility in the student population through the years and concerns about the safety and security at the various campuses that constitute the institution. In August 2006, Dr. Reed decided to re-focus on security and took advantage of utilizing the experience of David Plummer, who was returning from a combat tour in Afghanistan as a battalion infantry operations officer with his National Guard unit. Plummer worked with the STC director of operations and an STC safety committee to assess the security of the campus and develop a phased plan to increase security district-wide. This was no small endeavor, as the college had grown from one campus with approximately 1,000 students in 1993 to more than 18,000 students on five campuses in a two-county area by August 2006.

Plummer and George McCaleb, the STC director of operations, decided on a four-phased approach. The first phase was to gain an accurate picture of the actual security situation on all the STC campuses. The second phase was to develop plans and procedures. The third phase was to identify initiatives to be implemented, and the last phase was to continually assess and improve the college’s overall security.

Phase I

The first step was to assess both the actual and perceived threat levels at the different campuses. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Education, for all public two-year colleges, there were a combined total of three or less murders reported each year in 2003, 2004, and 2005 in the U.S. and surrounding territories. Similar data from the FBI also confirm that there are very few murders on American community college campuses. Even though this data showed that the likelihood of a worst-case scenario like that of Virginia Tech occurring was very small, the STC safety team could not discount it; in part, because of our own experience in 1998.

The next step was to gather input from the various constituencies that made up the college population to identify the perceived security levels at each campus. Focus groups were conducted, composed of faculty/staff in one group and students in another group. The focus groups were conducted separately on the various campuses to determine what these individuals believed were the greatest perceived threats at each location, and what they thought could be done to improve the situation. Overall, the results were positive, as the students and faculty said that they felt safe on campus. There were several items identified by all the groups as areas for improvement. We made sure these items — such as improved outside lighting, more visibility of our security guards, and emergency communications — were incorporated into our Phase III implementation plans.

The last step in Phase I was to invite the local police and fire chiefs from the three local jurisdictions to the respective campuses they support. We thought it important for these local emergency responders to conduct walkthroughs of our campuses and meet face-to-face with select faculty and staff. The expertise of these safety and security professionals was tapped through dialogues and meetings. The top three threats to our district, according to local police and fire personnel, were domestic violence incidents, bomb threats, and fires. Tabletop exercises for these scenarios were held separately at campuses within each of the jurisdictions. Along with local emergency responders, STC personnel including security, custodial, faculty, and staff participated in talking through each scenario and developing procedures that would then be incorporated into emergency response plans. A secondary benefit of the tabletop exercises was that the police and fire chiefs and their key personnel were able to meet STC administrators, faculty, and staff whom they would be dealing with during a crisis.

Out of this phase, an Emergency Site Binder for each campus was developed. These binders contained an emergency notification roster for STC, local responder contact information, floor plans, emergency procedures, and an STC building responder list. A set of these binders is kept at the STC dispatch, each STC site coordinator’s office, and the community emergency dispatch office in each jurisdiction.

Phase II

The goal of Phase II was to develop several plans to address hazards such as severe weather, chemical/biological threats (including pandemic influenza), and workplace violence that would encompass the safety and security needs for the district. The STC safety committee, composed of members from all areas of the college and throughout the district, first reviewed the general safety and emergency plans that had already been developed. The committee decided that more detailed plans needed to be developed. Accordingly, individual task forces were formed that were charged with the development of these various plans. The first two plans addressed were the Disaster Preparedness Plan and the Pandemic Influenza Plan.

The last plan developed was the Workplace Violence Prevention Plan. This plan took the longest to finalize as input from the focus groups, emergency responders, and college faculty and staff was combined with research on what other institutions of higher education were doing in this area. The task force sifted through all this information to develop a plan that addressed the major areas of concern for campus security in an area with the highest potential for an actual occurrence.

The final step in this phase was to develop Quick Reference Guides (QRG) tailored for each campus. Each guide had contact information and the key emergency procedures that we wanted everyone to know. The QRGs tied all the plans together in an easy-to-read brochure that was sent to all employees and given to students at orientation.

Phase III

This phase focused on the initiatives that were identified and prioritized for implementation. Plummer, McCaleb, and the STC director of facilities and planning, Gerry Rodriguez, toured each campus and determined that the first measures to be implemented were to increase the lighting and camera surveillance throughout the district. These items had also been identified during the focus group sessions and were designated to assist with the prevention and mitigation of a range of possible incidents. Plummer, McCaleb, and Rodriguez toured each campus at night to identify additional lighting needs and then developed both short- and long-term plans that covered the current and the upcoming fiscal years.

The next focus area was emergency communications. Plummer, along with the STC chief information officer, Arnold Gonzalez, took a look at ways to increase the communication channels across the entire spectrum of emergency operations. The first initiative in this area was to place Voice over IP (VoIP) phones in high-traffic areas on every floor of every building in the district. The majority of the phones were emergency/courtesy phones that could also be used to make outside calls and ring-down phones that automatically rang through to campus dispatch when picked up. A pilot project was also initiated to test wireless emergency parking lot phones that used cellular technology.

During this same period of time, a college task force was also reviewing mass notification systems. Several vendors were invited to the campus to give demonstrations of their products to the task force. Specifications were developed and Requests For Proposal (RFPs) were sent out. The task force decided on two different types of systems: the first was a mass notification system that could send out thousands of messages simultaneously via e-mail, text messaging, voice, etc.; the second was a public address/siren system to alert constituents on campus of emergency events.

The last item was to implement an enhanced 911 system that would provide more detail to both emergency responders from the community and campus dispatch. A system was selected that would allow emergency responders to pinpoint the campus, building, floor, and area that a 911 call made from a campus phone was located.

Phase IV

The last phase was to assure that safety and security matters were going to be continually improved and reviewed. The STC safety committee, made up of members from throughout the district, continued to meet as scheduled and would review the various plans that had been developed. Drills and exercises are also being scheduled to test the plans and follow-up with After Action Reviews (AARs) to determine what went well and where improvements could be made. The STC safety committee reviews the findings and changes are made to the emergency plans as needed.

Conclusion

The process of safety and security preparation is circular and must continue as campus security can always be improved. Information from internal AARs, as well as outside sources such as best practices, should be a part of this process. We also continue to include input from faculty, staff, and students, and are preparing to conduct follow-up focus groups to see if and how perceptions of our constituents have changed with the security measures implemented to date.

The STC safety committee also continues to review new data, work with community responders, and analyze items such as the Virginia Tech Report to get new ideas on how to improve security for our employees and students. We know we can never eliminate all possible threats to the safety and security of our college, but we believe through the kind of planning discussed in this article that we can be better prepared for these threats and help insure the well being of our students and our employees.

David Plummer currently serves as South Texas College’s chief project administrator and is a certified project management professional. Plummer also has experience as an Army Infantry Officer with a combat tour in Afghanistan. He can be reached at davidp@southtexascollege.edu. Wallace Johnson serves as the interim director of the Centers for Learning Excellence at South Texas College. He can be reached at wally@southtexascollege.edu.

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