Safety alerts go high-tech

The text message to students read: “From Public Safety. Male was found on campus with rifle. Please stay in your buildings until further notice. He is in custody, but please wait until the all clear.”In late September, a student, armed with a rifle, walked onto the campus of St. John’s University in New York. Later identified by police as Omesh Hiraman, the man was spotted by student police cadet Chris Benson. As Benson and campus police officers were subduing Hiraman, Benson felt his cell phone vibrate; it was the text message from the university warning him of the gunman on campus, he later told reporters.The same month, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a suicidal gunman came onto campus. Part of the university’s efforts to alert the public included a $100 ad placed on UW-Madison’s Facebook network warning students of the danger. Students who clicked on the ad were brought to the school’s Web page, which provided-up-to-the-minute information about the incident.Both incidents ended with no one hurt, but in the wake of April’s shootings at Virginia Tech, public and private universities are investing in technology to better disseminate information about campus security. Mass text-messaging and e-mail, flat-panel televisions displaying campus information and partnerships with social networking sites such as Facebook are popping up on campuses across the country.Since the passage of the 1990 Campus Security Act, all universities that receive federal funding have been required to issue alerts in a timely manner on all crimes that pose a serious, ongoing threat to the campus community. The act was amended in 1998 and renamed the Clery Act, after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student murdered in her dormitory in 1986.Student newspapers rely on the information guaranteed under the Clery Act to report campus crime. In addition to giving timely warning, schools must maintain a daily police log and publish an annual statistical report of incidents on campus.With technology changing how universities comply with the Clery Act, some experts say the acceptable amount of time for a university to give warning might be shrinking. Others say new systems may improve compliance, but the effect will not set a new standard for the largely nebulous “timely warning” requirement.No definite timeframeWith the law stating only that “reports shall be provided to students and employees in a manner that is timely and that will aid in the prevention of similar occurrences,” experts say what is timely warning under the Clery Act is mostly subjective. The act does not give a finite window for a university to report a crime on campus. That determination is left to the U.S. Department of Education, which, after a complaint is filed, decides whether the school gave adequate notice and issues any penalties. If a school is found not to have given timely warning, it could be fined up to $27,500.Catherine Bath, vice president of Security on Campus, a Pennsylvania-based group that promotes Clery Act compliance, said she would want administrators to warn students sbout serious crimes immediately.Realistically, though, it takes a little longer, Bath said.”I would say within 30 minutes of the discovery of the crime,” Bath said.Few experts can agree on what is an acceptable length of time for a university to report campus crime. It is a function of speed versus accuracy, and some say adequate investigation is needed before students can be informed.Douglas Tuttle, an instructor and policy scientist at the University of Delaware and a Clery Act expert, said the majority of campus crime investigations need time before any useful information can be given.”One of the challenges with the criminal incidents is that oftentimes there needs to be some amount of investigation before you know what really went on,” Tuttle said. “It’s hard to give meaningful warning if you don’t think you understand what went on. Crimes are often reported incorrectly by the person who calls on the outset.”In most cases, Tuttle said, he believes an informative report by the next business day is adequate. For more serious crimes, or if a danger is still posed to the campus, that time may shorten, Tuttle said.”Frankly, the more serious the crime or outrageous the behavior that goes on, the easier it is to figure out what you need to tell people,” Tuttle said. “The majority of crime on campus is more complex.”According to Security on Campus, in the nearly two decades since the Clery Act’s passage, the Department of Education has ruled that five schools failed to tell the public about a crime on campus in a timely manner.The latest timely warning violation occurred at Eastern Michigan University, where the Department of Education found the university failed to meet federal safety standards after 22-year-old Laura Dickinson was discovered murdered in her dormitory room in 2006.The school issued a release the day after the body was found but stated there was “no reason to suspect foul play.” Later releases did not inform the public that police were investigating Dickinson’s death as a murder. Ten weeks after the body was found, police arrested another student, charging him in Dickinson’s killing.In an 18-page report issued in July, the Education Department said, “EMU’s failure to issue a ‘timely warning’ concerning the death of this student is exacerbated by its issuance of contradictory published statements, which publicly claimed that a crime had not occurred.”In the report’s aftermath, EMU’s board of regents fired the school’s president. The board also chose to accept the resignations of the university’s vice president of student affairs and the director of the school’s department of public safety. Both administrators were involved in the investigation into Dickinson’s death. The ousted president is suing the university and the board of regents, claiming his firing was an attempt to silence his criticisms of some in the university’s administration.The Department of Education’s final report, issued in November, concluded that the school did violate the Clery Act. The Department has not yet determined how or whether to punish the university.*Raising the barCollege students are no strangers to using the Internet or cell phones, so it is no surprise they would adopt the new warning systems so quickly, Tuttle said.Tuttle said with the new technology comes a higher expectation among students and faculty that they will learn about incidents quickly.”Over time I think it will have the effect of raising the bar,” said Tuttle. “But, it will also focus some more attention on the importance of having a policy that lays out how these decisions are made.”Tuttle said in the past many universities had not laid out a plan to warn the entire campus of impending danger.”They’ve never really thought ‘how can we really provide a timely warning?’ ‘What is timely?’ ‘Who needs to be the decision makers?”‘ Tuttle said.Tuttle said mass e-mail or text messaging might be the most efficient way to inform a tech-savvy student body about campus crime.”There is nothing in the [Clery] Act that mandates how a school elects to provide the warnings. There’s always been a great deal of flexibility, but I think now that there are several providers of, let’s say, e-mail or text messaging systems, if you want to reach students, I thinks it’s the best way to do it,” Tuttle said.Leesburg, Va.-based Omnilert is one of the leading companies offering mass communication systems for schools. Omnilert’s product, e2campus, combines text messaging, e-mail, digital signage and Web-based methods of informing the student body about events on campus. When the company launched its product in 2003, it had seven customers. Today, the company has installed its system on close to 300 campuses.Clery Act compliance plays an important role in his business model, said Ara Bagdasarian, president and co-founder of Omnilert. Bagdasarian said he was motivated to develop a better way to warn students of danger when he read about the Clery Act’s namesake.”The idea was sparked in 2003 when I was actually reading an article about Jeanne Clery,” Bagdasarian said. “It immediately made sense that students carried phones; why not use mobile phones and text messaging as a means to communicate to students to prevent another Jeanne Clery-type situation.”Bath said such systems help get information out quickly not only to students but to media outlets as well.”The fallout is that reporters are getting hold of it right away, so now incidents that we wouldn’t have heard of in the past — not only are they warning their campus effectively and in a timely fashion, but the world knows,” Bath said. “So no longer are they keeping their campus in the dark, but the rest of the world is also not being in the dark.”Within a few years, the influence new technology will have on the DOE’s decision-making will be better understood, Bath said. After more timely warning cases are reviewed by the Education Department, universities will be able to better gauge what is an acceptable amount of time to inform students of a crime.”I think that there will be tighter standards,” Bath said. “And sometimes when it is not specified in the law, when the Department of Education starts making rulings about the timely warnings, they kind of set a precedent that people find out about and start following.”Stephen Janosik, associate professor at Virginia Tech and co-author of a number of studies on the Clery Act, agrees timely warning might be on the verge of a change, but he said he does not know if that will influence how the DOE interprets “timely warning.””I think there’s an evolving standard, and I can see that day certainly where being able to alert people by e-mail or by cell phone will become the industry standard, for example,” Janosik said. “Whether or not that causes an individual administrator or an institution to become liable for failing to act responsibly remains to be seen.”The DOE is tight-lipped about its decision-making process when it comes to timely warning. Education department spokeswoman Stephanie Babyak said only that while the DOE could not require schools to adopt any new security technology, it certainly encourages them to do so.Technology not a panaceaJanosik said despite new systems that make communicating with students easier, students and faculty cannot expect them to flawlessly deliver information to every person. Technology has its limits and is only as helpful at the people using it, Janosik said.”I do think that all of the technology that is available today will certainly create the expectation that students, staff and faculty on campuses are notified more quickly,” Janosik said. “But I think that it is going to be important for everyone to remember that despite all of these advances and conveniences in technology, that none of them will really guarantee that everyone get notified in a timely manner.”Technology does not replace human judgment, and even the latest systems still have the potential to fail, Janosik said.”We’ve been though two serious emergencies at Virginia Tech, and the thing that I’ve noticed is that e-mail starts to slow down due to the tremendous traffic though the Internet systems,” Janosik said. “Whether you are using a cell phone or a land line, the circuits get so overloaded that being able to get though to people becomes much more difficult in times of emergencies.”Janosik said universities also might not be able to reach students via cell phone when they are in class, as many professors ask students turn them off while they are teaching.Despite possible shortcomings, Janosik said he is optimistic about the potential for new systems to continue to drive the improvements to campus security the Clery Act started 18 years ago.”While a lot of people have these communication devices and use them frequently, technology is not going to be a silver bullet with respect to timely notice,” Janosik said. “But it certainly will be better than anything else we’ve had before.”UPDATE: In a letter Eastern Michigan University received Dec. 17, the U.S. Department of Education recommended the school pay $357,500 in fines — the largest Clery Act fine ever leveled against a school.