Catholic universities study own security after Virginia Tech tragedy

By Ann Piasecki and Paul Storer
Catholic News Service

ROMEOVILLE, Ill. (CNS) — In the wake of the tragic shooting spree that left 33 people dead April 16 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., universities nationwide have been re-evaluating their crisis procedures.

Three Catholic universities based in the Diocese of Joliet are no exception. Lewis University in Romeoville, the University of St. Francis in Joliet and Benedictine University in Lisle immediately reviewed their communications and security procedures involving staff and students.

Joe Falese, vice president of student services at Lewis and a member of the crisis response committee, said the Virginia Tech tragedy “affects all of us.” He also said he anticipates an avalanche of questions about campus security from parents and students, especially in the fall.

While the Blacksburg university has a more pastoral campus setting, colleges in the Chicago suburbs generally have a more urban feel because they attract a significant number of commuter students. But Falese stressed that every campus, no matter its location, must maintain a sense of safety and security.

Adding to the already established e-mail broadcast system to keep resident students informed about weather-related school closings and other information, Falese added that crisis committee members identified a plan to refine the overall communications system.

Beginning immediately, Lewis staff is working on the implementation of a policy that includes cell phones to get the information out. Since the bulk of the staff and students commute to the campus, the committee agreed that the best solution would be to announce crisis information by way of an automated dial-up system, designed to reach the majority of individuals associated with the school.

Officials at Benedictine University are examining a similar cell-phone communications plan.

According to Mercy Robb, a member of the school’s disaster committee, another suggestion for widening the university’s net for contacting students about emergencies happening on the campus is placing such announcements on Chicago’s Emergency Closing Center, which is regularly monitored by radio and television stations.

At Lewis, another initiative to come out of the more recent crisis committee meeting was a plan to activate an already-in-place public address system. Several of the buildings around campus are hooked into a system that sounds sirens to alert students about approaching tornados. Each of the sirens has a public address aspect as well.

Falese told the Catholic Explorer, newspaper of the Joliet Diocese, that the university is committed to enhancing the program, making sure siren/public address systems are installed across the campus by the time school starts up this fall.

Likewise, safety and security director Tom Uraski at Joliet’s University of St. Francis said school officials are examining ways to enhance the intercom system for quick communications.

At Benedictine, Robb said mechanisms to provide instant communication among students and campus personnel, tightened security in residence halls and throughout the campus were specifically addressed at a recent meeting. Heightened measures to provide more security for commuters are in the planning stages. About 75 percent of the school’s nearly 3,500 students live off campus.

Regarding dorm safety, Gary Benda, director of campus security at Lewis, said the dorms are locked 24 hours a day and entry is gained with a key or card. He noted that security personnel have a right to enter any dorm room to inspect it for possible security or safety breaches.

The biggest problem he and his staff encounter on a regular basis is a “small community” mentality. Because the campus takes on the characteristics of a small, friendly community, people frequently disregard “common sense” safety precautions. They hold the door open for unfamiliar faces entering the dorms and leave dorm doors propped open.

Since the Virginia Tech tragedy, security personnel at Lewis are recommitted to educating students about safety procedures, he said.

In light of the recent campus shooting, Uraski said it would be arrogant on the part of any school official to presume that his or her institution need not thoroughly re-evaluate its emergency policies and procedures to enhance the safety of its students.

Such an occurrence could happen anywhere, he added.

After the Virginia Tech shootings, William Carroll, president of Benedictine University, told university students on the school’s Web site that law enforcement professionals “cannot protect us at all times, in all places, in all situations.”

“Each one of us has a responsibility to be aware of what is happening around us,” he said. “In short, anything you deem suspicious, report.”

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