How safe are local campuses?

Lockdowns not feasible, but colleges have other measures, say officials

Inside Bay Area
Article Launched:04/17/2007 02:36:41 AM PDT

In the wake of Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech University, Bay Area colleges and universities said they would re-examine their strategies for responding to such a crisis. However, campus leaders note, any security procedures they could craft likely would never match the high-tech measures put in place to protect elementary and high school students.

Maximum security is neither possible, nor desirable in a setting built on openness, accessibility and trust, they said. And, the reality is, most colleges just aren't built to be locked down.

Campuses and dormitories can be vast, and a search for a suspect could take hours, said officer Ron Levine of DeAnza- Foothill Community College inSanta Clara County. Also, unlike secondary schools, college buildings are rarely connected to a single public address system with a speaker in every room.

Even if a lockdown were possible at a private college, campus officials say, it is not feasible at most public schools. Most buildings at San Jose State University, for example, require an Allen wrench to lock — a process that takes two to three minutes for each door. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it took 20 minutes to lock all the doors — and that required teams of maintenance workers.

The San Mateo County Community College District, which includes College of San Mateo, Canada College in Redwood City and Skyline College in San Bruno, does have a disaster-preparedness plan that it designed with local law enforcement agencies, spokeswoman Barbara Christensen said. This means employees within the district, she said, have specific jobs assigned to them in case of a disaster, and every year they hold drills to prepare for such events — including a shooter on a campus.

If a shooter were reported to be at one of the colleges, Christensen said the first step would be to call police. Then they would, at the very least, lock down buildings adjacent to where the shooter is located and tell people in the buildings to stay put and keep low, she said.

The district, she said, also is looking at the possibility of starting a global text-messaging system which they could use to keep students and staff informed of the situation.

Furthermore, part of the current construction on district campuses includes installing video monitoring at the entrances and exits of buildings, she said.

"It may not help us prohibit a situation like that from happening, but it might help us identify the perpetrator," Christensen said.

By noon Monday, California State University, East Bay, administrators had sent out e-mails to faculty and more than 12,000 students notifying them of the shooting rampage and asking for sympathy toward Virginia Tech's campus, said spokesman Kim Huggett.

Although such a horrendous occurrence never has happened at the Hayward campus, Huggett said the campus frequently takes measures to prepare for the worst.

Huggett said the campus police department, which works closely with the Hayward Police Department, is trained to stay abreast of all the latest security measures, including using state-of-the-art communications and cooperating with local law enforcement and emergency agencies to more aggressively isolate an attacker.

"We're one of 23 CSU campuses ... and each one of the campuses' police departments is trained for, among other things, an active shooter situation," he said. "Before Columbine, they were trained to think, 'Surround the scene and wait for the SWAT team.' Now, they are able to move quickly to pursue the suspect."

Another security measure, the Building Safety Assistant program, helps the campus stay prepared for a crisis, Huggett said. If Cal State East Bay were to experience such an event, employees already have been designated to direct people to safety so that campus police can concentrate on securing the premises.

By coincidence, Huggett said, the campus had scheduled an evacuation drill for today, and that will proceed as planned.

In a place where suicide, not homicide, often is a chief concern, prevention should be the priority, some area college administrators and police officials say.

"If I had all the money in the world, and could do anything to make this campus safer, what would I do?" asked Sgt. John W. Laws of San Jose State University's police department. "I'd spend it on mental health services," not high-tech security, he said.

"Rather than investing in defenses, I'd work to prevent the problem."

MediaNews staff writers T.S. Mills-Faraudo and Martin Ricard contributed to this report.