Evacuation plans, lock down procedures and notification systems are coming under scrutiny by public safety officials who are reacting to the shootout at Virginia Tech. Due to differences in the structure of the Southern Californian campuses, safety officials say, not all of these policies are feasible for every campus.
Lockdown procedures present a challenge for campuses in the heart of cities where it is difficult to monitor who comes and goes, and for campuses with large student populations that have to work harder to alert their students to emergency situations, says Nancy Greenstein, director of police community services at the UCLA police department.
“UCLA is like a city,” Greenstein says. “We have commerce, residents and hospitals. There are buildings that can be locked down, but it's not a realistic question for an urban campus.”
UCLA responded with what is called “active shooter” training for their public safety officers to prepare them for a situation such as the Virginia Tech massacre.
“Our police officers are trained for anything that may happen,” Greenstein says. “We use the scenario based training that other law enforcement agencies use.”
The difficulty for UCLA comes with informing their large student body about emergencies. They use mass e-mails and campus television among other methods to reach out to their students.
“You want to have redundancy,” Greenstein says. “All attempts are made, but we're dealing with human beings. We're as ready as we can be.”
A campus like Loyola Marymount, on the other hand, is secluded with only two entrances, both of which are guarded. The other side of campus butts up against a cliff face. LMU is also aided by a small undergraduate population of only 3,000.
Clearly, as far as security goes, not all campuses were created equal.
In addition to these advantages, three months ago LMU acquired a notification system that they can use to alert their students to possible dangers. Any student on campus can sign up to receive alerts on their cell phones in emergency situations.
“The new system can notify cell phones, texts, e-mails. It basically tracks you down,” says Jim Acosta, emergency preparedness manager for LMU. “Before we relied on e-mail, phone calls, staff members and personal contacts.”
Because LMU is small in both physical and population size, it can implement a lockdown procedure unlike the bigger campus of UCLA, says Raymond Hilyar, director of LMU's department of public safety. In addition, LMU has training programs for its students to make sure that the students know exactly what to do in case of emergency.
The University of Southern California has a campus similar to UCLA. Although they are in the process of reviewing and improving their own emergency response plans, the public safety officials stressed that the incident at Virginia Tech is very uncommon.
“This type of situation is very rare,” says David Carlisle, a captain of the USC's department of public safety. “It was also very hard to prevent because it involved a student with permission to be on campus.”
And it is this rarity that makes students at USC relatively unconcerned despite the immediacy of the problem.
“I feel very safe,” says Simon Knott, a graduate student at USC. “It may be a ‘it won't happen to me' kind of mentality, but it's not like it happens every day.”
Other students feel that they can't be too worried because it's impossible for them to prevent.
“I guess I don't feel like I can stress too much,” says Jack Kovacs, a freshman at USC. “I can't do anything to prepare for something like that, so there's no point in worrying.”
Prevention is as much of a mental health issue as a police one, however. College counseling programs have been experiencing an increase in depressed and medicated students over the past five to ten years, said Brad King, director of student counseling services at USC.
“Most college counseling services can't provide everything that every student needs,” King said. “It's a giant compromise.”
The only way to maximize prevention efforts is for the whole campus community to pitch in and help identify warning signs and behaviors, King says. Depression is often characterized by changes in normal behavior, variations in sleep and eating patterns, excessive irritability and poor hygiene.
Students and faculty who feel that something might be off with another individual should trust their gut, King says.
“I believe in intuition,” he says. “People should trust those feelings and perceptions.”
And though right now there may be what he described as a blip in over-reporting of behaviors and incidents, it's important that people not let their guards down when the media hype has dried up, King says.
“I hope people will stay alert,” King stresses. “We have to be a community about these issues.”
Carlisle seconds this.
“Nobody knows what's going on on campus better than the students,” Carlisle says. “We need them to communicate things that they see or notice.”