More than a year has passed since the tragic April 16, 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, and the topic of campus safety is still a hot one, with the question of how to best prepare ourselves for dangerous emergencies still devoid of any answer that’s reached nationwide consensus. The most evident byproduct of this discussion here at PSU is the implementation of our new emergency notification system known as PSU Alert, a system that notifies those who opt in via text message, phone or e-mail about any campus-wide emergency.
More than a year has passed since the tragic April 16, 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, and the topic of campus safety is still a hot one, with the question of how to best prepare ourselves for dangerous emergencies still devoid of any answer that’s reached nationwide consensus.
The most evident byproduct of this discussion here at PSU is the implementation of our new emergency notification system known as PSU Alert, a system that notifies those who opt in via text message, phone or e-mail about any campus-wide emergency.
Powered by the National Notification Network, known as 3n, PSU Alert got its first trial run on May 6 when an unknown individual called in a bomb threat to local television station KATU around 11 a.m. saying a device would explode in the Millar Library at noon (The threat turned out not to be real, in case you weren’t sure).
The library was evacuated immediately, and PSU Alert notified people of the threat…um, not immediately. Many students reported not getting their notification until after noon, and some got it as late as 2 p.m. (I received my text message at a narrowly death-avoiding 11:50 a.m.)
While those aren’t very confidence-inspiring reports, it’s definitely good that the alert system got a sort of “trial run” for kinks to be worked out should there be a genuinely dangerous situation in the future.
It’s curious, though, that in the wake of such fear, relatively few people have signed up for PSU Alert, and it requires virtually no cost to or effort from users, and it could ostensibly save their lives. As of a couple weeks ago, only 30 to 35 percent of those who had logged on to Banweb since PSU Alert went into action had signed up for the system.
The concern over campus safety isn’t as widespread as it may seem. Some students figure an altercation is unlikely to happen, or if one does, it’s unlikely that an alert system would do much good.
In a certain light, they have a point. To paraphrase German writer Josef Jeffe in a Washington Post column earlier this month, real terrorists don’t write letters or phone in threats; they just kill you. Data also reveal more good news than bad. The latest figures for the murder rate on U.S. college campuses puts it at 0.28 per 100,000 people, fantastically lower than the national rate of 5.5 per 100,000.
Violent crime among college students declined 54 percent between 1995 and 2002 (as opposed to 45 percent for non-students), and a Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that employees of colleges and universities had a violent-crime victimization rate of 1.6 per 100,000, staggeringly low compared to 20 for retail-sales workers and 54.2 for junior-high teachers. Campuses would seem like fairly safe places to be.
Then again, try telling that to the folks at Virginia Tech.
Or at Northern Illinois University, where a seemingly straight-arrow student walked into an auditorium and randomly shot 23 students, killing five before killing himself on Valentine’s Day of this year. Or at Louisiana State University, or the University of Memphis, or Delaware State University-all schools where students died in smaller-scale shootings this academic year.
Nationwide, PSU has followed a trend among emergency notification systems that use text messaging. Researchers from the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) released a survey this month of public safety responses to Virginia Tech from 331 institutions of higher education, and found that 75 percent of respondents had either implemented text messaging in their emergency notification systems or had made plans to do so.
Also interesting in MHEC’s report was the discovery that many respondents had considered more drastic security measures for their schools, but had opted against them.
“More than half of respondents said they had considered installing metal detectors at entrances to classroom buildings, and nearly half said they had considered installing closed circuit security cameras in individual classrooms,” according to an article on www.InsideHigherEd.com. “But in both of those cases, most institutions opted not to go that route.”
This is probably a good thing. The PSU General Student Affairs Committee held a forum on campus public safety last Thursday, in which the following excerpt from Gary Pavela’s new book, Fearing Our Students Won’t Help Them, was quoted: “Safety is enhanced when we protect our students’ civil liberties and when we try to find responsible, creative ways to keep them enrolled, rather than creative ways to dismiss them.”
It seems unlikely that measures such as metal detectors would’ve deterred the seemingly kill-at-random rages of Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois, and it seems even less likely at a spread-out urban campus like ours. Indeed, it seems like a large part of making our campus safe rests on us, the students, to help keep our eyes and ears open for dangerous situations and take an active role in making our community safe.
In regards to which, signing up for the PSU Alert system couldn’t hurt, ya know.
For more information on PSU Alert, go to www.pdx.edu/psualert. To report any immediately dangerous situations on campus, call the Public Safety Office Emergency Line at 503-725-4404. For non-emergencies, call 503-725-4407. Both lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.