Notebooks and Notification: New Campus Security Regulations Take Effect

August 23rd, 2010

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A college campus is run much like a small city: governed by its own leaders with its own rules and regulations. And much like a city, enforcing those rules and regulations is the responsibility of a police department, sometimes made up of dozens of officers at larger schools. Ensuring the safety and security of students, professors, staff, and visitors is no small task for these officers and administrators. Each year, 40,000 burglaries, 3,700 forcible sex offenses, 7,000 aggravated assaults, and 48 murders are reported at the 6,000 higher education institutions in the United States.

The federal government collects these statistics about campus crime because of a 1990 federal law known as the Jeanne Clery Act. Named for a college student raped and killed in her dorm room, the Act requires colleges to report campus crimes to the U.S. Office of Postsecondary Education in a timely fashion and notify students of threats.

While much has been done to improve campus safety in the wake of several high-profile shootings in the last few years, more work remains to be done in the area of planning and preparing how campuses will respond to emergencies.

Starting in October 2010, all Title IV institutions must submit their emergency response and evacuation procedures to the federal government in their Annual Security Report, which includes procedures to immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation.

With the widespread use of modern communications devices and ever-growing popularity of social media tools, colleges have several notification systems available to quickly disseminate vital information to stakeholders in an emergency. However, with an audience in a variety of settings from the classroom to the football field and to the library and beyond, it can be difficult for administrators to come up with a one-size-fits-all communication plan.

Text messages can blanket a campus in mere seconds, but participation levels can lag if the alert system is a voluntary “opt-in” service where subscribers have to sign up to receive alerts. Auto-dialer notification to employees’ work phones and messages posted on the campus’s homepage are additional methods, but likely to reach only a limited audience.

The optimal solution strives to reach everyone with a hybrid mix of “opt-out” text message alerts (where everyone is signed up to receive alerts and must actively decline to receive messages), a campus information phone line, an auto-dialer notification to emergency wardens and building coordinators, and a mass notification system (such as a public address system).

In addition to setting up the procedures for alerting the campus community to danger, colleges must also include in their report:

  • A description of the process the institution will use to confirm that there is a significant emergency, determine who to notify, determine the content of the notification, and initiate the notification system.
  • A list of the titles of the persons or organizations responsible for carrying out this process.
  • Procedures for disseminating emergency information to the larger community.
  • The institution’s procedures to test the emergency response and evacuation procedures on at least an annual basis, including publicizing its emergency response and evacuation procedures in conjunction with at least one test per calendar year, and document a description of the exercise as well as the date and time of the exercise and whether it was announced or unannounced.

It is important to note that this emergency notification requirement does not replace the timely warning requirement. They differ in that the timely warning applies only to Clery Act reportable crimes, while the emergency notification requirement addresses a much wider range of threats (e.g., gas leaks, tornadoes, contagious viruses, etc.). However, an institution that follows its emergency notification procedures is not required to issue a timely warning based on the same circumstances but must provide adequate follow-up information to the community as needed.

With these additional reporting requirements, the federal government is working to ensure that colleges and universities address the very real threat that everyday emergency situations can bring.

CHHS has written and tested Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans for numerous colleges and universities to help administrators, professors, and staff members prepare for and respond to a wide range of emergencies that could significantly disrupt essential functions and staffing.

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