WASHINGTON – On the heels of college shootings that left nine people dead within a week,a group of higher education associations launched a study Tuesday aimed at assessing campus security and emergency response preparedness nationwide.
The announcement came as faculty and staff began to return to work at Northern Illinois University,where a gunman killed five students and himself and injured 16 others on Valentine's Day. Six days earlier,a female shooter killed two female students and herself at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge,La.
The yearlong project will collect information about college and university response plans for such emergency situations – along with natural disasters,terrorist and cyber attacks and infectious disease outbreaks – through an online survey of higher education institutions and visits to about half a dozen schools that have experienced different kinds of threats.
Other organizations have conducted similar assessments,but none has analyzed threats and preparedness from so many different angles simultaneously,said Jim Hyatt,who will direct the project through the National Association of College and University Business Officers,or NACUBO.
The study will focus not on prevention but on preparation and will consider technology,public safety,legal,administrative,financial and personnel risks. Organizations representing university employees in those fields are helping to fund the project.
“I think people are really wanting to share information,and my experience in my prior institutions is that I think institutions can really benefit from each other,” Hyatt said. “I think there's a sense that by sharing information,we just get stronger.”
Hyatt retired in January from his job as executive vice president and chief operating officer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,which became the site of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history April 16 when a student shot 32 people and himself.
In the aftermath,Hyatt led an internal review of the school's security,during which his team visited institutions that had previously responded to earthquakes,severe weather and other safety threats.
“What we discovered was,though the event that triggers the response can be different,the kind of things you consider when responding are very similar,” Hyatt said.
By that logic,Northern Illinois University had to consider some of the same factors in its response to a classroom shooting as Union University in Jackson,Tenn.,did when a tornado caused an estimated $40 million in damage to that campus on Feb. 5.
“The types of plans and response teams you might need for any type of hazard is true whether it's natural disaster,threats to people's lives or threats to cyber systems,” said Rodney Petersen,government relations officer and security task force coordinator for Educause,a nonprofit information technology association and partner in the study.
Educause is particularly interested in improving the technological framework of threat responses,even for those that aren't directly related to cyberspace. Damage from natural disasters or mass phone calling during shootings can overwhelm communication systems and increase threats,he said.
In the end,Hyatt hopes to develop a guide schools can use to evaluate and improve their emergency response procedures.
“This study really models the fact that all parts of the campus need to work together,” Hyatt said.
He expects the online survey,which is under development,to launch this spring.