College Students Decline Text-Message Warnings

College administrators are finding that students are not rushing to sign up for cell phone text-message alerts. After the Virginia Tech shootings last spring, many campuses felt this was the answer to keeping their students alert to danger, but students don't share their concerns.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up: The moving paintings of Jeremy Blake. But first, since 32 people were killed on the Virginia Tech campus in April, colleges across the country have scrambled to add cell phone text alerts to their security programs. Short Message Service, or SMS, text allows schools to send mass warnings to the cell phones of everyone who signs up for the service. The problem at most schools is that most students aren't signing up.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Federal campus security laws have long mandated that schools issue timely warnings in instances of crime on campus. But now SMS, or Short Message Service Systems, will soon be on more than half of the nation's campuses, according to Brett Sokolow of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.

Mr. BRETT SOKOLOW (Legal Consultant, National Education for Higher Education Risk Management): There's so much pressure on colleges and universities right now to do something that this is the easiest thing. And so it's sort of a simple response to answer all the questions from parents and students, well, what have you done? Well, we put in this text messaging system.

CORNISH: Sokolow says the money going to these programs would be better spent on improved mental health services and stronger threat assessment teams for campus security, especially since participation rates for text alerts are generally low.

Vanderbilt University seniors Chris Edge(ph) and Emily Keane(ph) reflect the trend.

Ms. EMILY KEANE (Senior Student, Vanderbilt University): People are lazy in general, and I just don't think people are that concerned to get around to doing it. I mean, yeah, that was a scary event, but I don't think people really think it's ever going to happen here sort of mentality.

Mr. CHRIS EDGE (Senior Student, Vanderbilt University): I think it is (unintelligible) security, and we may be mistaken. There may be a feeling that we cultivate on our own a false sense of security. But I think most of us feel secure.

CORNISH: Vanderbilt established its program several years ago, and at this point just 40 percent of the school has signed on to get notification sent to their phones. Across the state, at the University of Memphis, 7,100 people on a campus of more than 20,000 have registered for their new text alert system.

Ms. PAMELA JONSON(ph) (Senior Student, University of Memphis): A lot of people didn't sign up because they honestly felt that it was a waste of time.

CORNISH: Senior biology major Pamela Johnson.

Ms. JOHNSON: And then text messages rate are flying. Your phone bill is ridiculous, just so we could try to get text message from the school. So sometimes you don't want to sign up because you don't just have the money. We're college students - a lot of us don't have the money.

CORNISH: Johnson didn't sign up until after a student athlete was shot and killed near the Memphis dorms last month. Getting and maintaining an accurate database of mobile phone numbers for thousands of college students isn't feasible for most institutions so they rely on voluntary participation.

Brett Sokolow questions whether text message warnings will do much good if you can't get a 100 percent of the school onboard.

Mr. SOKOLOW: I still wonder, if Virginia Technology, had they been able to put out a text message, would they have had enough information to actually warn anybody in a way that would have protected them? And I don't think the answer is yes. So I think we might have enough information to scare somebody pretty well, but I'm not necessarily sure whether, for incidents of violence that the text messaging is going to be the panacea that most people think it is.

CORNISH: But schools argue this is just about keeping up with the ever-changing modes of communications their students prefer. And while Virginia Tech's participation rate hovers around 60 percent for its text alert system, it has many other ways of reaching out to its community.

Mr. MIKE(ph) OWCZARSKI (Spokesman, Virginia Tech): Hopefully, people don't think that this is replacing anything, or this is the one thing that will guarantee that people will receive information instantaneously.

CORNISH: Virginia Tech spokesman Mike Owczarski says regardless of the participation rate for the text alert program, the school warning system already includes blast e-mails, mass voicemail recordings, Internet instant messaging alerts, public radio and TV broadcasts and even campus sirens.

Mr. OWCZARSKI: It is yet one more way that we can reach people and we hope that collectively all of this message will inform enough people to make them safe or - in an urgent situation, or to inform them when they need to know something right away.

CORNISH: And in the end, says Owczarski, none of these communication techniques can replace the most vital - word of mouth.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.

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