April 10, 2008

Local Universities Discuss Safety in Year After V-Tech

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Last night, the Campus Community Coalition hosted a public forum entitled “Post–Virginia Tech: Update on Local Campus Preparedness” at the Africana Studies and Research Center to discuss changes in the emergency response system.
The CCC is composed of Cornell, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College staff, as well as students, neighbors, local law enforcement and other individuals with an interest in community safety.
The meeting began with short presentations by representatives of the CCC’s three member institutions. All three institutions are undertaking significant campus security and student health reforms in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy last April, during which a student gunman killed 32 people before committing suicide. [img_assist|nid=29713|title=Let’s talk about safety|desc=Cornell’s Richard McDaniel listens to Bob Holt of Ithaca College talk about campus safety yesterday at the Africana Center.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Richard McDaniel, vice president for risk management and public safety, outlined Cornell’s crisis response and student health initiatives.
McDaniel stressed the importance of teamwork in preventing and handling crises like the one at Virginia Tech.
“In a crisis scenario, everyone involved needs to be aware of their responsibilities,” he said. “Unless the involved agencies are practicing together, they’re not going to be prepared to collaborate together in the case of an actual crisis.”
McDaniel said that Cornell has worked to increase interagency communication regarding student health and safety. For example, the Risk Management and Public Safety Division brings together departments such as the Cornell University Police, Emergency Planning and Recovery and Environmental Health and Safety. In addition, Cornell has established an “alert team” made up of administrators, University police officers and counselors who meet each week and share information about students who might be troubled.
“We have to put an infrastructure in place that will allow us to get in front of these problems before they develop,” he said.
McDaniel also said that the University is working to make its emergency notification system more effective. Currently, in the event of a crisis, roughly 58 percent of Cornell students, staff and faculty would receive warnings via voice or text messaging. The University is also considering how to improve its video surveillance system.
On a more low-tech note, Cornell will be testing a recently installed siren alert system on Apr. 30.
The representative for Tompkins Cortland Community College, Bob Ross, and the Ithaca College representative, Bob Holt, emphasized similar themes: the importance of intergroup communication, staff training and better use of available technology.
Ross said that it was particularly important to use what he called “redundant technology” — overlapping security and alert systems that are independent and will continue functioning if part of the emergency system is shut down.
Holt gave a brief history of the 17 mass killings that have taken place on college campuses since Aug. 1966. “Maybe the colleges and universities in this area have been more lucky than good so far,” he said.
Following the three presentations, there was an hour open for questions.
Michael Raffe, a South Hill resident, expressed concerns regarding how quickly people living in the areas surrounding Cornell and Ithaca College would be alerted in the event of a crisis on either campus.
“We need a system for alerting students’ neighbors so that they too can respond to any crisis,” he said. “We aren’t being included in the emergency alert lists for students and faculty.”
Jennifer Streid-Mullen, executive director of Ithaca Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services, also wondered if the wider Ithaca community would be notified of a crisis within an appropriate amount of time.
McDaniel said that information about a crisis event would be posted on the University’s operating status website but that the best information source for most people would probably be the media.
All three representatives said that their institutions have taken measures to try to improve student well-being and counseling services.
Deb Harper, director of Ithaca College’s counseling center, said, “We have several ways of educating students about how they can help each other. We’re also working to reduce the stigma of seeking help.”
Tim Marchell, director of mental health services at Gannett, said Cornell is also working to make its student counseling services more approachable and effective.
“The probability that someone at a university the size of Cornell is seriously stressed is relatively high, and the likelihood of student suicides is fairly high as well,” he said. “By offering help to those who need it, we can decrease the chances of all types of student problems.”
Several students attended the forum.
Jake Mastbaum ’11 said that the meeting was informative and reassuring.
“It’s hard to imagine something like Virginia Tech happening here,” he said, “but it’s good that the University has plans in place in case it does.”