Campuses Face New Reality of Safety Situation

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Following Thursday's killing of five students on the campus of Northern Illinois University, Host Liane Hansen talks with Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security on Campus. The nonprofit group tries to make school campuses safer. They discuss how schools can improve safety.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Officials at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois have announced that classes will resume February 25th, after Thursday's fatal shootings. School officials are still stunned that five students were killed and 16 were injured by a gunman on their campus.

This was at least the third shooting episode on a college campus this month. Jonathan Kassa is executive director of Security on Campus, a non-profit group that tries to prevent violence on college campuses and help victims of these crimes. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. JONATHAN KASSA (Executive Director, Security on Campus): Thank you.

HANSEN: I bet you've been getting a lot of calls these past few days from colleges and from parents. What have you been hearing from them?

Mr. KASSA: A lot of concern. I think the response was to see if Northern Illinois had done anything improper or wrong. It was easy for us to assess rather quickly that it seems like they had a good response. When parents are calling, or students, what we try to do is guide them in a direction of the bigger picture of asking questions about how prepared a campus is and how an institution responds to crime on their campus.

It's really about reducing risks, strengthening their responses, making sure that there are plans in place ahead of time.

HANSEN: What advice do you give to colleges about beefing up security?

Mr. KASSA: Certainly learning some lessons over the past year. I believe we've already seen that and the colleges are aware now more than ever since Virginia Tech. And obviously NIU brings more attention to it.

The first thing is to have multiple strategies, to have a comprehensive plan that uses different tactics. So you have high technology solutions, such as text messaging systems, all the way through to lower modes of communication, whether it's even going door-to-door or message screens or postings in certain common areas, cafeterias.

You really need various ways to get information out to the students to communicate to visitors and other people.

HANSEN: Let me get specific. Northern Illinois University had a campus alert on its Web site. It had a public address system to warn students about the shooting. Was this enough?

Mr. KASSA: It seems like that was enough. I believe it was in less than 90 seconds they had officers on the scene and within minutes the campus was locked down.

HANSEN: Is it your experience that colleges actually have the financial resources to set up these kinds of early warning systems?

Mr. KASSA: Yes. It could cost only several thousand dollars, maybe a little bit more to set up, say, some of the more modern text messaging systems. And for the size of the budgets of most schools, it's not an investment that's going to break them.

HANSEN: You know, we've been talking about these systems, the text messaging, public address notifications, lockdown. These are responses to something that has happened or is happening. Is there any way to put in any kind of preventative measures?

Mr. KASSA: Absolutely. Campuses such as Cornell University has what are considered some best practices in the sense of training everyone from top administrators to the janitors to notice signs of mental health problems or duress for students so that they can report it properly.

Those type of actions ahead of time may catch some red flags. Eighty percent of the crime on university campuses are student-on-student. And so the key is to try to screen or be able to better assess what red flags there are so we're not dealing with the symptoms when it's too late.

HANSEN: Jonathan Kassa is executive director of Security on Campus, a non-profit violence prevention group based in Pennsylvania. Thank you.

Mr. KASSA: Thank you.

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