State aims to create campus security task force

New legislation introduced in the Illinois Senate aims to increase security measures at colleges statewide, specifically targeted at the standardizing of security procedures.

The Senate reviewed the new legislation for a 27-member task force to prevent campus violence Wednesday in Springfield. The legislation included Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s three initiatives aimed at increasing security.

“We have the responsibility to do everything possible to ensure the safety of all students, from elementary and secondary schools to colleges and universities,” Blagojevich said in a press release sent out in the wake of the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech.

The new three-pronged proposal will increase funding and resources for security, while building on a 2005 initiative that sought to increase security in primary and secondary schools.

“The fact is we already had the training going for K-12 schools, and we had some people from college campuses that had attended that training who said the training would be useful at the college level,” said Patti Thompson, communications director for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. “With the shootings at Virginia Tech it also made it even more obvious. We wanted to get it on the table as quickly as possible.”

If created, the Illinois Campus Security Task Force will include representatives from varying institutions of higher education and governmental security departments, like the Emergency Management Agency and state police. Blagojevich created the task force to examine security issues on campuses and develop new procedures for ensuring the safety of the students, faculty, staff and visitors. The task force will be responsible for identifying the specific security and training needs of different campuses and implementing the proper programs.

“Each campus works on its own particular safety precautions,” said Tom Hardy, University spokesman. “The chancellor works with the campus police and each has their own security and safety procedures.”

Nearly 900 schools have already participated in the training programs, which have been operating since 2005, Thompson said. These training sessions address emergency situations ranging from fires, hazardous materials or intruders.

Before and after the massacre at Virginia Tech, University officials have been reviewing staff and faculty training sessions, Hardy said. The administration is making changes in the current procedures and discussing the utilization of better technology to contact students in the event of an emergency, including an emergency text messaging system.

The Illinois Terrorism Task Force will provide $330,000 for the purchase of Starcom 21 radios to assist with better communication on campuses. The radios allow the user to communicate with all necessary branches of emergency responders and those outside their area, on the state level, Thompson said. The devices will aid in “interoperable communications capabilities” in the event of an emergency. Thompson said communication problems between response teams on Sept. 11, 2001 were the result of different agencies using different radio frequencies.

The governor will also appoint members of current secondary education offices, such as the Illinois Board of Higher Education, to the Illinois Terrorism Task Force. The addition of these organizations to the task force is meant to alert other public safety bodies of the security issues unique to college campuses.

“I’m sure in the vast majority of cases, campuses have security plans already in place that will deal with the kinds of things that occurred at Virginia Tech, but these tragic events are an unfortunate reminder that we always have to be vigilant,” said Don Sevener, director of external relations for the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “If we can take this opportunity to review what exists and discuss what practices are in place at various campuses and brainstorm about a way to make both campus security and mental health and counseling services improve, then this is a very useful program.”

Similar campus security task forces have been proposed in response to the shootings at Virginia Tech in other states including Missouri, Ohio and New Jersey.

“These initiatives are enhancing what we do,” said Krystal Fitzpatrick, interim executive director of public safety and University chief of police. “But, this task force will also assist smaller colleges and universities in getting things accomplished.”