Campus Security Back in the Spotlight

The Virginia Tech massacre last year prompted schools and universities across the country to rethink their security procedures. Melissa Block talks with Darcie Shinberger of Western Illinois University in Macomb, which recently instituted a new campus-wide emergency alert system.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Students at NIU were alerted to yesterday's shooting by e-mail, phone and the school's Web site. Many schools launched emergency alert systems after the Virginia Tech shootings last year.

Darcie Shinberger is the director of university relations at Western Illinois University in Macomb. WIU rolled out its campus alert system a few months ago to tell people about severe weather, bomb threats or other dangers. I asked Shinberger what would have happened if there had been a gunman on her campus yesterday.

Ms. DARCIE SHINBERGER (Director of University Relations, Western Illinois University): We have pre-recorded messages already in the loop that we can activate from a computer or from an 800 number within a matter of seconds, so that emergency alert system would have been launched. We would have used that to send e-mails, text messages, voice mails, phone calls to students, faculty and staff's cell phone, office phones, home phones, whatever numbers they have in our system.

BLOCK: Those messages are already recorded?

Ms. SHINBERGER: We do have some pre-recorded messages. For instance, the university is closed due to severe weather. So, those are very simple. We can also launch a message in real time, where we can record that into the phone system immediately with the information, for instance, there's a gunman in North Quad, people are advised to stay in. There are residence halls and in their classrooms. And stay put until it all clear, something to that effect.

BLOCK: You know, I was looking at the NIU Web site yesterday, and the first alert popped up there at 3:20 in the afternoon.

Ms. SHINBERGER: Right.

BLOCK: I have a copy of an e-mail that was sent to a student there, the same alert. And it took about 20 minutes for that alert on the Web site to translate into an e-mail that would have popped up on her computer.

Ms. SHINBERGER: If there was a situation on the Macomb campus, where we have roughly 11,000 people, we anticipate that the response time would be anywhere from a few minutes and no longer than 10 for the messages to begin getting distributed to all the various facets that they can.

BLOCK: You know, Ms. Shinberger, of course, the things that we're talking about are messages that are sent to alert in the case of a shooting, that something bad has already happened.

Ms. SHINBERGER: Right.

BLOCK: Did your campus consider security measures that would, in some way, prevent something like the shooting that we saw yesterday from happening in the first place?

Ms. SHINBERGER: We're an open public campus. And anyone can enter our campus at any time. And that's just the reality of the situation. What we're doing right now, we have purchased 20 public address systems that are being built to be mounted on 20 call boxes in strategic locations on campus, where if there is a report, an officer can get on that public address system and announce that to people outside.

We also have a public address system in our residence halls that are linked to the fire alarm call boxes in which a hall staff member can get on the main floor and broadcast throughout the residence hall, stay in your room. Do not go to such and such building. This is what's happening.

BLOCK: You know, I think a lot of people looked at what happened yesterday and thought, you know, if we don't have security guards, an army of them everywhere, this really could probably happen anywhere.

Ms. SHINBERGER: And that's the unfortunate tragic reality. And it is frightening to know that no matter where you go, there's always that risk or that chance that something could happen.

Even my fifth grade student in the school, they have systems in place where she knows if she hears something suspicious, she has to tell an adult. And their school has been on lockdown. Unfortunately, it's - I hate to say it, almost a sign of our times, where I think you have to be on guard. And if you notice anything suspicious, if it doesn't look right, you have to tell someone. And getting that word out to students into the campus community I think is essential.

BLOCK: Well, Darcie Shinberger, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. SHINBERGER: Thank you. I really appreciate your time.

BLOCK: Darcie Shinberger is the director of university relations for Western Illinois University.

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