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What happens during and after a campus emergency

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HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, and the East Lampeter Township Police Department (ELTPD) recently partnered for an active shooter training exercise.

(From left) Lancaster Campus Vice President Lois Schaffer; ELTPD Chief John Bowman; HACC President John “Ski” Sygielski; ELTPD Sgt. James Shank; HACC Interim Public Safety Director Edwin Dominguez; and HACC Interim Assistant Public Safety Director Oriali Rivera.

Photo: HACC

​​Texas’ Lone Star College System has had “a lifetime of events in one semester,” said Ray Laughter, vice chancellor of external affairs.

On Jan. 22, Laughter had just left an off-campus meeting when he got a phone call telling him there was an incident on campus. He pulled his car over, grabbed his IPad and saw that every major local and national news station was showing an aerial view of the North Harris campus.

That afternoon, a man had opened fire during an altercation. Three people were wounded, but there were no fatalities. Though the incident was over quickly, about 250 police officers ended up on campus, as well as media from across the country.

“It’s hard to imagine how quickly things can happen,” Laughter said.

On April 9, the unimaginable happened again. This time, a student went on a stabbing rampage at the CyFair campus, injuring 14 people. Again, police and media flocked to the scene. 

The incidents “tested our safety and security measures as well as our communications,” Laughter said.

Putting practices to work

In the aftermath, the administration first wanted to make students and staff feel comfortable returning to the college. In both instances, campuses were reopened the day after the events. Open forums were held and counselors were available to speak with students and employees.

“It helped us get back to some degree of normality quickly,” Laughter said.

Then, the administration got to work evaluating what went right during the emergencies and what needed improvement.

When off-campus events affect on-campus life

The system already had an extensive emergency plan in place. Just 24 hours prior to the January shooting, a video was shared with faculty and staff, focusing on various scenarios and how to handle them. And once the shooting happened, commissioned police officers on campus were on the scene in less than a minute, securing the area.

In the minutes and hours after the incident, though, information kept changing, and some of it was incorrect. Managing communication was difficult. During the April stabbing incident, a phone line was opened up between the system’s media office and a sheltering area, so first-hand information was easier to obtain.

“No matter how good your plan is, it never works out exactly how you think it will,” Laughter said.

The system is doing more training with faculty and staff and working to empower people to use their judgment in emergency situations, such as seeking shelter on their own or pulling alarms. The communications system, which was overwhelmed during the shooting incident, has been improved.

Also, after learning that a vast majority of students had not opted in to Lone Star's alert systems, efforts have been ramped up to get students to opt in.

“There’s a lot you can do without investment,” Laughter said.

Small improvements, big payoff

HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, is conducting a comprehensive review of safety and security systems in place after two students were abducted in two separate incidents.

“Domestic disturbances are happening more and more,” said HACC President John “Ski” Sygielski.

Crisis management planning resources

After the incidents, forums were held to solicit feedback from students. Small fixes go a long way to making students feel more secure. The college has improved lighting, will add another call box and is upgrading its phone system.  Shrubbery and trees have been cut back to improve visibility.

HACC also put together a task force, which includes the director of public safety, and brought in a consultant. Security policies and evacuation plans are being evaluated.

The college plans to “utilize existing untapped resources and assets,” according to Sygielski.

Part of that means engaging public safety officers in new ways. Security officers will better utilize bikes and emergency vehicles owned by the college.

The main campus will be divided up into four security areas, and officers will rotate through the areas. They’ll become more visible and more familiar to students. Plain-clothes officers will be used, as well.

HACC administration has made sure the campus community is involved and updated as changes are being made. The response, so far, has been positive.

“They know we take this seriously,” Sygielski said.

Contingency plans

Leaders at New River Community College (NRCC) in Virginia will use the summer to also reevaluate emergency management plans and procedures after a shooting at a satellite campus in April.

A student walked into the site, located in a shopping mall miles from the main campus, and started shooting. He injured a student and a part-time employee before he was apprehended by an off-duty security officer.

It took most of the staff from the main campus about 20 minutes to get to the site, and by then, media had been alerted to the incident.

“It was pretty intense,” said Mark Rowh, vice president for workforce development and external relations at NRCC. Rowh is the college’s spokesperson.

Because the incident happened on a Friday afternoon, “I could have easily been gone,” he said. When updating plans, NRCC will make clear who the back-ups will be for essential staff and ensure those people are properly trained.

At Lone Star, Laughter said having a back-up system is essential to a good plan. It also needs to be “clear, simple and straightforward.”

“You need to have everybody know the first five things that need to happen when you have an incident,” he added.

But even with a good plan, “you need to be prepared to make adjustments and act on the fly,” Laughter said.

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