Local News

Cooper Announces Task Force on Campus Safety

Posted April 18, 2007 2:59 p.m. EDT
Updated April 18, 2007 9:28 p.m. EDT

— Two days after a gunman shot 32 people before killing himself at Virginia Tech, North Carolina's attorney general announced a task force to study safety for all institutions of higher learning in the state.

"We will take time to mourn these deaths, and we will take time to learn from them," Attorney General Roy Cooper said.

Comprising leaders of both private and public colleges and universities, the task force will address three security concerns: guidelines for campus lockdowns, guidelines for identifying potential shooters and guidelines for better communication with students during an emergency.

"There are many good campus safety plans in place across North Carolina, but they must be updated and improved in light of this tragedy," Cooper said.

In the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, there are approximately 240,000 students and employees—a combined population about the size of North Carolina's third-largest city. Leaders boast a crime rate that is one-sixth of the state's overall rate.

"That doesn't mean we're satisfied with where we are," UNC system President Erskine Bowles said. "We're going to continue to work to make campuses as safe as they can be."

Bowles said, the task force would look at what safety measures are in place at each UNC campus and evaluate how security could be better.

Those measures include card-access systems to all dormitories, alarms for doors that are propped open, surveillance cameras and monitors and a look at e-mail, phone and sound systems to communicate with students, Bowles said. Funding could come from the state as well as the UNC system budget.

The system also is trying harder to complete extensive background checks on student applicants. In the past year, schools denied admission to more than 100 applicants who had been expelled from their high schools, arrested or faced other troubles in the past, Bowles said.

"I can assure parents that their kids are safer on our universities than they are at almost any place else in North Carolina," Bowles said, noting the crime rate on UNC campuses is one-sixth the crime rate elsewhere in the state. "Does that mean we have a perfect solution? Absolutely not."

Martin Lancaster, the president of the North Carolina Community College System, said some rural campuses don't have the resources to field their own security staff. They must learn to coordinate closely with local law enforcement, he said.

Hope Williams, the president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, also said it can be difficult to contact all students, faculty and parents in the event of an emergency. But Williams said all schools—from rural counties to major cities—already have emergency plans in place.

"We're not beginning now, we're adjusting and modifying as needed now. We feel good about the plans that are in place, but we never want to feel completely comfortable."

North Carolina's higher education system serves more than 300,000 full-time students and many more part-time students at dozens of universities, community colleges and private institutions, according to state figures.

Many school administrators and security officers across the state have already started reviewing their policies and protocols, some meeting Monday just hours after the Virginia Tech shootings.

At North Carolina State, the state's largest higher-education campus with some 31,000 students, e-mail and faculty liaisons in all buildings are used to disseminate emergency information across the 2,000-acre campus. Officials are considering a reverse 911 system, and dorms are permanently locked and residents need a key or a card to enter.

Wake Forest University has gates that can quickly halt vehicle access to campus. East Carolina University can lock some of its campus buildings with the push of a button.

"Many good campus safety plans are in place across North Carolina, but they must be updated and improved in light of this (Virginia Tech) tragedy," Cooper said. "We must make sure we're ready if a similar evil strikes a North Carolina campus."