Monday, February 25, 2008

Changes Nobody Wants

Life on college campuses is not what it used to be - the past year has been one of intense activity in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy. Colleges are fortifying their campuses for unknown and unwanted attacks that are hard to imagine. The recent, horrific event at Northern Illinois University underscored the fact that colleges can not prevent many of these sad and tragic incidents - too often they can only hope to minimize the damage through levels of preparation. As an educator, I still remember where I was standing on April 20, 1999 when I heard about the Columbine High School shooting - as a Dean of Students at a community college just outside of Denver and less than five miles from Columbine. I remember standing in the airport last year watching the Virginia Tech tragedy unfold on April 16th...the day I was traveling to Utica to meet with the MVCC Board of Trustees for them to officially approve my appointment as President and assume responsibility for leading this College in such uncertain times. I found so many good things in place at this wonderful College and one I was perhaps most grateful for was the administration's attention to campus safety.

What's Been Done?
For many years, MVCC has had a Crisis Team in place. The Crisis Team is comprised of a group of senior administrators and staff who oversee plans and infrastructure for the College to handle emergencies. The College has a comprehensive Emergency Response Plan, with protocols for specific crisis scenarios. The plan has been updated to include the latest steps we are taking to improve safety and security on campus (for example, the Crisis Team met the afternoon of the NIU shootings to discuss various issues). Our crisis plan encompasses multiple phases that will significantly enhance the College’s ability to respond in the event of a crisis. The recent purchase of 29 security cameras brings the total number of cameras to 35 for the residence halls. There are 16 additional cameras are in place throughout the campus and 9 more were installed (5 in Utica and 4 in Rome) with the completion of the network upgrade this past fall. The Facilities office has reviewed all of the locks on classrooms, labs, and offices throughout both campuses and identified solutions to enhance safety through better locks.
As a preventative measure, we have created a Behavior Evaluation Response Team (BERT). The purpose of BERT is to proactively identify and follow-up on repetitive student behavioral issues. Faculty and staff are able to email a special committee with concerns about students who are exhibiting behaviors that put them at risk to their own safety or the safety of others. We have also installed and tested an outdoor warning system with siren and public address capabilities at the Utica Campus. I believe we are the first community college and the second college campus in the state of New York to implement such a safety measure. We have already identified monies to install a similar system for our Rome Campus.

What More Can Be Done?
MVCC is also joining NY Alert-a statewide system where students and employees have the ability to go to the college website and sign up to be notified of a campus emergency. This is a voluntary system that will allow the State Emergency Management Office to transmit messages via cell phone text messages, email, or fax. In addition, the Crisis Response team has completed the National Incident Management Systems training (NIMS). Team members have also attended a number of professional workshops on campus safety that has led to the pursuit of many of these initiatives mentioned here. With the regular meetings of our Crisis Response Team, our crisis plan will continue to be updated and we'll continue to identify future initiatives to increase our ability to keep our campuses safe.

With tremendous support from the MVCC Foundation, we have also secured dollars to implement other future safety measures. Our new telephone system will be able to serve as internal public address system and provide different messages to buildings and individual floors, offices or classrooms. The dollars will also allow us to place telephones with auto dial to public safety in every classroom and lab. In addition, we are reviewing our electronic signage internally and externally to be able to communicate better in the event of a crisis.

With so many changes in the world, it is abundantly clear that not all change is for the good. We often speak of the difficulty of trying to prepare for every scenario imaginable – a task now much more complicated when the unimaginable seems to be occurring on a regular basis. Do you have ideas for campus safety? If so, please let me know at presblog@mvcc.edu.