Universities reassess security plans
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, DREW HARWELL, and ROBBYN MITCHELL
Published April 19, 2007
The shootings at Virginia Tech already are prompting a re-evaluation of security measures at Florida's public universities, which house nearly 300,000 students from Miami to the Panhandle.
The Board of Governors, which oversees the universities, will hold a conference call today to discuss possible improvements and changes to campus emergency-alert systems and security procedures.
The campuses have warning systems already, but they are designed more for events such as hurricanes than immediate, fast-moving situations like what happened at Virginia Tech.
And next week, a Senate higher education meeting will take up the issue of campus security. Sen. Steve Oelrich, former longtime sheriff of Alachua County, is so disturbed by the response of campus police at Virginia Tech that he will dedicate Tuesday's meeting to campus security.
Specifically, the Gainesville Republican wants to know each public university's strategy for dealing with a mass shooting.
Oelrich said he will invite university presidents and their campus security heads to the meeting, which will be the last before the session ends.
Oelrich said he was disturbed by news footage Monday night showing "all kinds of cops hiding behind trees, hiding behind doorways," while the shooter fired over and over at students and faculty members.
University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando said Wednesday that campus officials have yet to formulate concrete plans on procedural changes since the shootings.
"So far, there's been no discussion towards tightening security, but that's not to say there won't be meetings in the future," Orlando said. "Soon, we're going to be putting our heads together and saying, 'OK, what can we learn from this?' "
At Florida State University, a campus police spokesman echoed that sentiment.
"We have been watching with great interest what is going on at Virginia Tech to see if a situation like that is any way preventable," said Maj. James Russell.
Orlando said the biggest improvements at UF will likely come with the campus communication system.
UF can quickly send e-mails to all faculty members, staffers and students and update its Web page in an emergency, he said. Electronic sign boards at campus main entrances and a commercial text-message system also can be used for notices.
Orlando said one of the biggest communication upgrades may be a proposed "reverse 911" system, which will be able to mass-call students, and faculty and staff members.
Within the next few days, Orlando said the university will formulate a wish list of services needed from the local or state level to improve campus security.
"You can always do a better job," he said. "You never want to be complacent."
At FSU, president T.K Wetherell said in a statement that the school constantly plans for such events and has put into place a number of measures "to reinforce the safety of our university's students, faculty, staff and visitors."
Among them are 350 blue light emergency phones across campus that can be used to contact police, and a public address alert system that is being installed.
"We have the hardware," Russell said of the public address system. "But now it has gone in to maximum overdrive. The unfortunate incident at Virginia Tech has only sped up the process."