Congressional funding for campus security urged

Published 10 March 2008

There are 17 million students who live in open environments on college campuses across the United States; a year after the deadly Virginia Tech shooting, there are growing calls for Congress to help fund campus security; high-tech alert systems, such as text messaging, are seen as crucial to warn students of possible threats

Almost a year after the deadliest shooting on a college campus, Congress is still haggling over legislation which would provide federal dollars to colleges and universities to help pay for improved campus security. Security is now a top priority at colleges across the nation after a student gunman at Virginia Tech University killed thirty-one students and a faculty member in April before shooting himself. More campus violence erupted on 14 February when a gunman killed five students at Northern Illinois University before killing himself. Six days earlier, a female student at Louisiana Technical College shot two students then killed herself. On 23 February, college officials at Ferrum College in Virginia ordered a campus lockdown after a man was seen with a gun in a residence hall. The college is less than fifty miles from Virginia Tech. The suspect was not found and no one was hurt.

USA Today’s Pamela Brogan writes that advocates for safer campuses and improved security are frustrated that Congress has not acted to provide federal aid. “Yesterday would have been too late for many of the parents, who have students at schools or are burying their children,” said Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security on Campus, a nonprofit group whose mission is to make colleges safer. The group projects that 2007 will have been the most deadly year on campus with more than forty murders. Bills approved by the House and Senate would create federal matching grants for universities to help pay for emergency communication systems or improved safety training. The measures, tucked into a bill that updates the postsecondary education law, is now part of a House-Senate conference. Congressional action could come as early as April on the education bill. Colleges, however, might not see any federal dollars until next year because federal funding also must be approved by budget committees and signed into law by the president. Following the Virginia Tech shootings last year, Congress held a series of hearings to examine what could be done to prevent tragedies like the ones this month. College officials and security experts testified that outdated communications systems were hampering effective campus security. They also said federal grants could help schools pay for stronger security. “Security is a very big deal,” at universities since Virginia Tech, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president with the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 public and private colleges. “The last phone call a college president wants to make is to parents to tell them that their son or daughter has been seriously injured or died. The costs of increased security is the cost of doing business,” he said. “There’s just no other way to do it.”

At Missouri State University, which has 20,000 students and has had no campus murders, security costs about $2.3 million annually, according to Ken McClure, associate vice president of administration. MSU’s security budget is projected to increase by $40,000 by the time the school unveils a new emergency communications system in May. “We believe our university is safe, but you cannot assume that we would not be a target, ” McClure said. “After the tragedies, everybody is re-examining what they are doing.” Making campuses safer is not only costly but also challenging. Raymond Thrower, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said there are 30,000 public safety officers on campus for 17 million students who live in open environments. This is why security experts view high-tech alert systems, such as text messaging, as crucial to warn students of possible threats. They range in costs from about $15,000 at small colleges to more than $100,000 at large universities.

Thrower, who is also director of safety at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, said campus law enforcement officials, especially at smaller schools like his with 2,600 students, often work on low budgets. Increased security costs also take a bite out of the budgets for other programs. “We always go over our budget,” for security said Sarene Deeds, director of security at Drury College in Missouri, which has 1,600 students. Deeds said she is shopping for a new emergency communication system that would cost between $5,000 to $10,000. Federal grants would help defray the expense, she said. Some university officials said Congress should provide money to fund campus security because it has become an integral aspect of postsecondary education. “If students feel they are not safe, that’s taking away from their education, said Miles Heckendorn, director of public safety at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.