Campus Security Act Passes Ill. Senate Committee

This story was written by Renee Chacko, Daily Illini

As part of a set of recommendations following the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, the Campus Security Enhancement Act was approved by the IllinoisSenate Higher Education Committee last week. In an attempt to help make campuses across Illinois safer, the act requires colleges and universities to develop and exercise emergency response and violence prevention programs.

The act awaits full Senate approval, and if passed would require the University administration and Campus Emergency Planning officials to review their plans annually.

"As new threats emerge, campuses and universities will need to pay attention to these issues. The hope is that campuses will review these plans at least on an annual basis and that they will be ready as different threats come up," said Mike Chamness, chairman of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force.

Chamness also sits on the response committee of the Campus Security Task Force established under Gov. Rod Blagojevich in April 2007 to develop and implement policies to enhance the response to and recovery from major public safety incidents at higher education institutions in Illinois. Based off the task force's recommendations, part of the Senate bill requires campuses to develop and exercise an all-hazards emergency response plan.

"The first step is for colleges and universities to identify the risks unique to their campuses. Plans developed by university officials would in essence help to prevent, mitigate and respond to these specific risks," Chamness said.

The University has emergency text messaging and blast e-mail technology, and its emergency response plans are highly sophisticated, Chamness said, and would probably serve as a model for other campuses across Illinois.

The development of violence prevention programs is also part of the task force's recommendations included in the bill. Chamness said violence prevention consists of reporting potentially threatening behavior to a campus violence prevention committee. The bill allows each college or university to decide who should be a part of its committee, with the possibility of including mental health professionals. The violence prevention program is also required to create a campus threat assessment team that would inform students on what constitutes potentially threatening behavior and to whom they should report this behavior. Both the committee and the threat assessment team would help evaluate the reports and take appropriate actions such as expulsions or prescribing proper mental health care.

The bill could potentially change the way student leaders, such as resident advisors, train to secure the safety of their residents. Currently, resident advisors are trained to respond to emergencies such as tornados and fires, but also on how to prevent violence by getting to know their residents on an individual level and recognizing odd behavior.

"I think the additional professional training would be really helpful on the job," said Peter Pascua, Sherman Hall resident advisor and graduate student. "It's a lot to have this responsibility fall upon your shoulders. The additional emergency planning and exercise would help keep people aware of the problems and give people time to transition into the plan."

Although the bill does not specify response or prevention plans, the hope is that university officials will develop campus-specific plans.

"We fully understand that we can't prescribe the same prevention and response plans for all campuses," Chamness said. "Each campus is different in the risks they face as well as the resources available. It would be up to the administration to decide what needs to be done and how exactly to balance the safety of students wih privacy issues."

The task force recommended a $25 million Campus Security Enhancement Grant program to help campuses in need of technology receive the aid to create proper response systems. Funding for this initiative is included in the governor's capital bill.

In case of a campus shooting or an all-hazards emergency, campuses would need to know whom to contact from the surrounding community. In order to provide administrators with this professional expertise, state and local emergency management officials will assist administrators with the development of these plans, as well as with training and exercises related to their execution.

"The most useful part of the act is that can help colleges and universities exercise emergency response plans to help them figure out what doesn't work on their campus so that they can refine their strategies," Chamness said.