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Area colleges reassessing security Officials seeking better ways to communicate with students following Virginia Tech massacre

Top officials at area colleges want to find a quicker way to communicate, en masse, with all their students -- maybe by tapping into their text messages.

University administrators want to tweak their disaster plans to learn what they can from the almost unfathomable Virginia Tech massacre.

And they'd love to find a way, without intruding on privacy rights, to better red flag any students who seem like ticking time bombs.

But don't expect to see local colleges turn into fortresses, with metal detectors and armed security guards at every dorm or classroom entrance.

College administrators here, like their colleagues around the country, have spent the last four days wrestling with some of the toughest questions they've ever faced.

"I don't think we've talked about anything else since 11 a.m. Monday," said Dennis R. Black, vice president for student affairs at the University at Buffalo.

These administrators are walking a fine line.

They want to preserve the warm and collegial atmosphere of their campuses.

They also want to prevent another Virginia Tech.

"Here we have a beautiful rural campus, a mirror of Virginia Tech, except for the size," said Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure University in the Town of Allegany.

"If we want to put surveillance cameras everywhere, if we have guards at every entrance, the trade-off is that the feeling of 'I'm at home in a warm, welcoming community' has to be given up for the feeling that 'I'm in an institution,' " Carney added.

"I personally struggle with the balance between safety and openness," added Fredonia State College President Dennis L. Hefner. "Where is that line?"

Hefner, emphasizing he wasn't criticizing Virginia Tech officials, provided perhaps the simplest lesson learned from the two sets of shootings there.

"If there is a shooting on campus, I would lock the campus down immediately and cancel classes for the day to be on the safe side," he said. "That's easy to say now with 20-20 hindsight."

No matter how small the campus, no matter how strong the crisis-response plan, no matter how closely the school monitors its at-risk students, administrators say that if a massacre could happen at Virginia Tech, it could happen anywhere.

"I don't think any of us, in this day and age, are immune to incidents like this," said Ellen O. Conley, vice president for student affairs at Canisius College. "We just have to take all the precautions we can and pray that it doesn't happen."

Black said it's clear that everybody has to go back and think about a few issues:

Does the campus have a system to communicate quickly with its students, staff and faculty?

Does the college have lockdown and evacuation plans?

And is there a clear chain of command for quick decisions?

Specifically, Black said, colleges may have to install more surveillance cameras, require visible ID cards throughout campus or lock down buildings at certain times.

"I think that's the future for all of higher education," he added.

College administrators realize they have to find the best way of getting messages quickly to all their students.

That means factoring in how students communicate today, primarily with cell phones and text messages.

"We need to marry the traditional technologies that are our preferred means with the technologies that are the students' preferred means," Carney said.

These colleges already have a way of sending mass e-mails to their students. The students who are online often spread the word quickly, via word of mouth, cell phones and text messages.

But sending that message directly to everyone who has text messaging would ensure that the straight message gets communicated.

"We need the text messages, because student-to-student information can feed on rumor, second-hand reports and misinformation," Carney said.

Some colleges, such as Fredonia State and Canisius, are eyeing ways to institute a system that would make quick phone calls, mostly on students' cell phones, within minutes of any such emergency.

Other colleges need to expand the scope of their disaster-preparedness plans, which often deal with everything from hostage situations and sniper shootings to natural disasters such as floods.

Everything but mass murder.

"I think in the wake of Virginia Tech, the answer is we're doing a good job," Black said, "but we were doing a good job based on the tragedy being a single shooting in the residence hall, [not a rampage]."

Four days after Virginia Tech, it's still too early for all the answers.

Just after the shootings, Fredonia State officials had an initial meeting about campus security, Hefner said. While no immediate security measures were taken, officials agreed to sit down again this summer to review campus security policies.

Especially prickly is the question of identifying and providing help for troubled students, such as Virginia Tech's Cho Seung-Hui.

This is a basic battle between protecting an at-risk student's privacy rights and protecting others' safety.

"Our society can't have it both ways," Carney said.

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, in most cases, prevents colleges from contacting parents or the police about a student's mental problems without the student's consent. That law has two basic exceptions: if there's a health or safety emergency, or if the student has violated drug or alcohol laws.

"I don't feel our hands are completely tied in dealing with students with psychological problems," said David Herman, vice president for student affairs at Fredonia State. "But it would be nice to have more freedom to mandate counseling or perhaps force a student to withdraw in the most extreme cases."

One thing is certain. The mindset of college administrators has changed in the last 96 hours. "Virginia Tech" has become the new "Sept. 11" for college administrators.

In Albany on Wednesday, state lawmakers began pushing a plan that would require college campuses to have similar levels of security as those already required in the state's elementary and secondary schools.

A group of Senate Democrats called on the heads of the state university system and private college leaders to join officials in Albany in devising a coordinated plan for addressing campus security issues.

"We're in a post 9/1 1 environment, and we need to be better prepared," State Sen. Antoine Thompson, D-Buffalo, said.

Tough issues loom.

"I think the chill I feel in my bones about this whole thing is that in the desire not to have this happen on our campuses, we may have to give up some of the freedoms and informalities we cherish, just as we have given them up on our airlines," Carney said.

Yet, life on a college campus isn't a two-hour airplane flight.

"I think the last thing we want is to have people coming onto campus and it being as difficult as getting on an airplane," Black said. "That may be a secure community, but it's not the kind of open community we want to have."

News Albany Bureau Reporter Tom Precious contributed to this report.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com

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