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Taking the initiative on campus security

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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an article in the October/
November edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Ned Miller does not take security lightly. As director of campus safety and emergency management at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), any threat requires serious consideration.

Miller’s diligence paid off early this school year when DMACC’s marketing department flagged a Twitter post from a student who claimed he wanted to “shoot up” the campus and asked others to join him.

DMACC marketing officials encountered the tweet while using a social media search engine called Radian6 to monitor mentions of the college on social media websites and contacted the college’s public safety department. Miller’s security team immediately notified local police.

“They were using a search engine that searches social networks and were able to pick up on a threat to our campus community,” Miller explains. “We try to identify threats to the community by any means we can.”

The student suspect was arrested on campus on the second day of school and charged with first-degree harassment.

Though the threat turned out not to be credible—the student claims it was a joke—the example showed just how swiftly community college security forces can mobilize when members of the community are proactive about identifying potential threats to campus safety.

“That young man learned a very expensive and serious lesson,” Miller says. “If not for the search engine, had it been a credible threat, we may never have known anything until it happened.”

Brian Van Brunt, director of counseling at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), called DMACC’s actions impressive.

“That’s a great example of how to use technology for campus security,” says Van Brunt, who speaks often on subjects related to student mental health and campus safety. “We invest a lot of time and energy into technology and police, but maybe we should put more into threat assessment to prevent incidents rather than just responding to the moment of crisis.”

Safety through social media

As community college administrators adopt a more proactive approach to campus safety, many institutions are experimenting with emerging technologies, including potential applications for social media, using Twitter and Facebook to notify students and faculty of closings, emergencies and public safety issues on campus. Social media is also being used to assess what Alvin Winkler, chief of public safety and security at Baltimore City Community College (BCCC), calls the “mood” of certain factions on campus.

Creating safe campuses one educating moment at a time  

“We have Twitter and Facebook; they don’t necessarily assist in a lot of crime prevention, but they let us know the mode and the mood of people on campus,” Winkler explains.

 Though viewed as a good fringe benefit, experts say the technology has not advanced to the point where it should be viewed as a primary security measure.

Jason Friedberg, chair of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators’ (IACLEA) Security Technology Committee and chief of the Department of Public Safety at Bucknell University, says there is not “enough knowledge out there” to efficiently harness data from social networks. Until such a time, he says, he would be “hard pressed to use it” as a core piece of any campus security operation.

Harder for community colleges

Community college administrators say they’ll take help any way they can get it. Unlike their four-year counterparts, which have the luxury of a traditional student profile, community colleges serve a more diverse and potentially unpredictable student population.

Winkler, who heads the BCCC security effort in a crime-ridden area of inner-city Baltimore, says monitoring crime on and around campus is a big part of the job.

“You would be shocked to see the crime statistics that exist around this college; we are like an island in the midst of it,” he says.

The circumstances require that the college be proactive, not reactive, in its approach to campus security. And that includes the use of technology. For example, BCCC uses an Emergency Notification System (ENS) that enables its security department to broadcast emergency messages to cell phones as calls or text messages and to blast messages onto computer screens connected to the campus network.

The college also maintains 200 surveillance cameras and closed-circuit TV systems that feed into a 24-hour command center.

“We’ve had suspicious individuals come on campus and we’ve been able to follow their moves from the time they set foot on campus until we could have an officer get on the scene,” Winkler, a former member of the Baltimore Police Department, says. “We use a lot of technology to help us, and we don’t hide what we have. We have card reader locks on all of our doors, and our radio system is hooked up with Baltimore City Police so we can get notification to them immediately.”

BCCC’s security network lets Winkler broadcast official security messages over the college’s PA system from his cell phone, wherever he is on campus.

Howard Community College (HCC) in Maryland uses a similar ENS system. Like BCC, “all of our classroom doors are on proximity access cards where you need a card swipe to get in,” explains Ken McGlynn, director of security. “If we have a lockdown, we push a button and that will automatically lock all of the doors.”

The technology helps colleges prepare for the worst.

“If you look at some of the major shooting cases, like Columbine and Virginia Tech, they both included intruders walking in and shooting,” says McGlynn.

The hope is that automatic door locks might help contain such an event.