Colleges Expand Safety Programs

By Vernon Freeman Jr.

RICHMOND, Va. – At Virginia Commonwealth University, classrooms are equipped with yellow alert boxes. Campus buildings are surrounded by sirens and emergency telephones. Text messages are sent to keep students informed.

Those are just some ways VCU seeks to promote safety.

Over the past five years, VCU has joined other colleges and universities across the nation in implementing systems to improve school safety and warn students if something urgent happens on campus.

VCU’s director of emergency preparedness, Adam Crowe, said the improvements followed the massacre at Virginia Tech in which a deranged student killed 32 other people before committing suicide.

“After the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, there was obviously a greater emphasis in doing the public a service in the VCU community by improving their awareness, but also having to comply with certain legal standards like the Clery Act that require universities to notify those in the community for certain activities, including crimes and emergency situations,” Crowe said.

The Clery Act is a 1990 federal law mandating that colleges and universities publicly disclose information about campus crimes. A nonprofit organization called the Clery Center for Security on Campus promotes compliance with the law.

Abigail Boyer, the center’s assistant director of communications, said the Tech shootings took everyone by surprise. “Certainly no one could anticipate a tragedy like that.”

She said her group and school officials nationwide know that students, faculty and staff deserve to be notified if an occurrence on campus puts them at risk.

“What we are seeing across the United States are campuses that are really taking a holistic approach to campus safety,” Boyer said. “They have a variety of methods and means of communicating with individuals on campus if something occurs.”

VCU reflects that trend. Its alert system includes sending text message, email, Twitter and Facebook alerts to notify students about violent crimes and other security situations.

Until now, students had to “opt in” by signing up to receive the alerts. Starting this fall, VCU alert text messaging will be an “opt out” system: Incoming freshman will automatically be enrolled to receive the alerts, and they’ll have to opt out if they don’t want the service.

Under the text messaging system, there are two types of warnings:

* “Timely alerts” concern crimes on or near campus, so students can be on guard.

* “Emergency alerts” would be issued in severe cases, to recommend that students go or stay indoors.

“If we have something on the core campus that’s life threatening, active and imminent, and require immediate action for people on campus and fits into the Clery crimes, we’re going to activate the alerting system," VCU Police Capt. Mike O’Berry said.

In this situation, emergency sirens ring, yellow lights flash and pre-scripted messages immediately go out to all alert boxes on campus and to students and staff via text message.

Under the Clery Act, schools must notify students when certain kinds of crimes occur or are attempted. Those crimes include murder, sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assault.

Clery offenses also can include burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson.

“If there is a pattern that has developed, then you send out a timely warning on stuff like burglary and motor vehicle theft,” O’Berry said.

VCU also would send alerts about burglaries if they involve breaking and entering. But rarely is there forced entry into a dormitory room. In most cases, O’Berry said, “Someone left the door open; there were people that they knew in the room.”

Unlike many universities, VCU has two campuses: the Monroe Park Campus bordering the Fan District, and the Medical College of Virginia Campus in downtown Richmond. Crowe believes this presents “a very unique challenge.”

A related challenge is that it’s hard to separate on-campus crimes from crimes that happen just off campus or on streets and other public areas that traverse VCU property. For VCU police and students, any offenses on or near campus are a concern – even if they fall under the jurisdiction of the Richmond Police Department.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to find some other ways to figure out. That’s where we also need a good relationship with the city of Richmond,” Crowe said. “While they don’t have text messaging and the sense of ‘we are going to give you an alert very specific to where you are,’ there may be alternatives to give information to students who live off campus.”

Even in situations off campus, O’Berry said alerts are still available.

“If we have one of these instances occur close to the core campus in our jurisdiction, maybe a block out, what we would do is we would put that information on the alert Web page,” he said.

That page is at www.vcu.edu/alert

“The alert page is something student and staff should check,” O’Berry said. “It’s there, and you’re on your computer every day.”

VCU’s Police Department has 83 police officers and will add nine for 2013. Moreover, the Richmond Police Department serves areas on and near campus.

“While it is an urban environment, VCU is a relatively safe place to live, work and study,” O’Berry said. “We have a pretty comprehensive crime prevention program. We funnel a lot of information out on how to stay safe on campus.”

Boyer said all members of the VCU community – employees, faculty, students and parents – must work together on the issue. “Campus safety is a community effort.”

Crowe urged students to take advantage of services that VCU offers.

“College unfortunately sets up a perception in some ways [of] ‘We’ll take care of you,’ ” he said. “And in a lot of ways, that’s not a reality – especially in an urban environment.”

By reading VCU’s alerts, Crowe said, students can be aware of dangerous situations. He also said students should take advantage of programs like the VCU Security Escort Service.

“This is one of my personal passions,” Crowe said. “We really want students and faculty and staff to take some personal connection into being safe and prepared.”

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What you can do to stay safe at VCU

* Sign up for VCU text alerts at www.vcu.edu/alerts

* Look for the yellow boxes that make up VCU’s Emergency Reporting Telephone System. There are more than 325 ERTS phones on VCU’s campuses and satellite properties. They connect directly with the Emergency Communications Center. Use the system if you’re in trouble or see an emergency situation.

* Use the VCU Security Escort Service. It provides inter-campus and intra-campus escorts to ensure safe arrival to one’s campus destination – for example, if you’re walking to a parking garage late at night. Dial 828-WALK or use an ERTS phone to request a security escort.