THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK
Senate Standing Committee on Higher Education
Security Procedures and Campus Policies Designed to
Provide a Safe Environment for Students and College Personnel
Van Buren Hearing Room A
Legislative Office Building
May 1, 2007
Chairman LaValle and members of the Senate higher education committee, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to share with you our thoughts regarding campus safety in light of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. But first, on behalf of the State University and our entire higher education community, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the victims, their families, and friends.
Protecting the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff is paramount within the State University. The events of 9-11 permanently changed the way campuses view the issue of security. Many improvements have been made. Yet, no single campus today can guarantee they can prevent situations like the one that occurred at Virginia Tech from ever occurring. However, that fact should not stop us from doing everything possible to reduce the likelihood of such an event and ensure the effectiveness of our responses if such an attack does take place.
The Virginia Tech tragedy challenges us in many ways and the University has been carefully reviewing our approaches to health and safety at all of our 64 campuses. We will provide information about our review process and plans that currently exist on our campuses and our level of preparedness to deal with this type of critical incident.
As this discussion unfolds, it should be noted that colleges and universities are complex and open places with a great number and variety of facilities – including residence and dining halls, classrooms and offices, power plants and laboratories, field houses and stadiums. Additionally, the SUNY system is composed of both State-operated and community colleges, which creates another level of complexity that precludes addressing the safety concerns of the State University with one uniform solution.
Over the course of the past two weeks we have reviewed the emergency response training offered to our campuses and we have reviewed our emergency response planning efforts. We have assessed the training levels of our residence hall staff and law enforcement personnel. Following these assessments, our Presidents have been provided with guidance on immediate areas that they should address. In addition, SUNY has formed a comprehensive University-wide Critical Incident Task Force which met last week to review current campus practices in the areas of mental health counseling and risk assessment, critical incident management, including crisis-related decision making, emergency communications, shelter-in-place protocols and training, a and a and to identify best practices in the State and nation in these areas. In addition, the bi-annual meeting of the Chancellor’s University-wide Committee on Campus Safety, scheduled for the early fall will focus on the findings and recommendations of the Critical Incident Task Force, thus continuing these discussions to ensure that our campuses provide the best levels of education available in a safe environment.
In examining campus safety, there are three areas of immediate concern: mental health resources, communication strategies, and emergency response and critical incident management.
Before we discuss these, I would like to state that our student body is no different from student bodies at other public and private institutions across the nation.
It is no secret that the number of students entering our colleges and universities with professionally treated mental health issues is increasing. We are not sure why this is the case, but needless to say, we are concerned for the overall health of all our students. As you know, each of our State-operated campuses have university counseling centers that provide mental health services, while many of our community colleges do not have such services, due to their predominantly non-residential nature. We know that approximately nine percent of our students seek mental health counseling on campus and many others seek the services of private mental health professionals. Furthermore, we also know that the number of students using psychotropic medications to treat a variety of disorders is rising.
The International Association of Counseling Services, a nationally recognized professional association for counselors on college campuses, recommends that the counselor to student ratio on a college campus be one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. It should be noted this range takes into account the availability of external community support services available for our students. However, if such services are available in the community, and often times they are not, students can experience a five week wait for services. At SUNY, the ratio on our State-operated campuses averages about 1:1,700. While the ratios for individual campuses range considerably, with the increases in the numbers of student seeking services, clearly many of our campuses do not meet the recommended national ratio. In order properly to support at risk students, we need to augment our staffing levels in our counseling centers with full-time, licensed clinical professionals. In addition, we need to strengthen campus efforts in risk or behavior assessments of students. Many of our campuses already conduct such reviews of specific cases on a weekly basis but we need to make such reviews more comprehensive and multi-disciplinary in nature.
Further, we need to enhance our efforts to provide a comprehensive integrated prevention program that includes increased training for our residence hall staff, our faculty, and all others who work closely with students. This program provides an overview of the types of services provided by the campus and includes information on when a person should notify the campus about an at-risk student and who they should call. We will ask our campuses to review their involuntary administrative/medical leave policy for students who present a health and safety risk to themselves or others. For the limited number of campuses that do not have such policies, we will ask them to consider developing such policies. These policies must be consistent with current legal standards and balance the need for access and the safety of our campus communities. In this regard the law provides authority for the protection of the health and safety of students and the community. Our policies and the training of our professionals reflects this fact and this responsibility.
In the area of communication strategies, there are various modes of communication and no one plan – such as text messaging – is the most effective or efficient means of communicating with all members of the college community. Each situation demands different approaches – and there is no one method that will work in all situations. Effective communication strategies can include: active broadcasts, such as horns, sirens, public address systems; passive broadcasts such as announcements on campus voice mail, websites, email, and campus TV/radio; and individual approaches involving the use of text messaging and calls to personal cell phones to contact individuals. The best approach to emergency communication is to have multiple and overlapping types of communication systems.
Some have suggested that a uniform system should be mandated across SUNY and the State. There are, however, challenges with implementing a uniform communication strategy and our campuses need to have considerable flexibility in determining which mode or forms of communication are appropriate for their campus setting, information technology (IT) and communication systems in place, as well as the situation being confronted. The SUNY Critical Incident Task Force is currently exploring the utility of various communication strategies and will make recommendations regarding approaches to improve our ability to communicate with our students and employees, in a swift and effective manner. This includes the possibility of requiring campuses to collect personal emergency contact information for students and staff, including cell phone numbers and non-campus email addresses. In addition, we are examining our campus’ information technology infrastructure and seeing how to best integrate their communication systems with existing student information systems. Our goal is to have our campuses develop multiple methods of communicating with members of their campus communities in an effort to minimize risk if facilities or infrastructure have been lost or destroyed. However, the allocation of sufficient resources to upgrade equipment and facilities will be necessary as we enhance our security and communications systems.
In the area of emergency preparedness, as you would expect, all SUNY campuses have emergency plans in place.
However, to improve our ability to respond to emergencies, I will be directing all SUNY Presidents to ensure that their campuses are and remain compliant with the National Incident Management System or NIMS. This requirement includes incident management training, the establishment of an emergency response team with the appropriate level of back-up or redundancy, as well as exercising/testing those plans on a regular basis. As emergencies seldom happen in a nine-to-five environment, our campus leaders need to be able to make and implement decisions in a 24-7-365 environment. I am pleased to report that a majority of our campuses are already functioning well in these areas – but, nevertheless, it is important to review the procedures in place and identify any vulnerability or areas requiring update.
There seems to be considerable interest in the concept of campus "lockdowns" as a response to critical incidents. I want to be clear that while a "lockdown" may be an appropriate response in a middle or high school setting, where there are generally only one or two buildings, it is not necessarily an appropriate response in a college campus setting. With 2,695 buildings on our 64 State-operated campuses and community colleges, a "lockdown" of a major campus is generally not possible. However, we are asking campuses to develop or refine their plans to "shelter-in-place", which provides some of the same protections as a lockdown but is a more flexible approach to provide this form of protection. While we need to develop effective plans to shelter-in-place, we will also be reviewing our evacuation plans and our plans for the immediate deployment of our University Police, as well as ensuring that they have appropriate protective equipment and armament for an effective response. We will also improve and test our ability to work collaboratively and communicate effectively with external first responders as well as other local, regional and State resources.
The unfortunate events at Virginia Tech also provide us with an opportunity to explore how we address other violence and safety related issues. We will be asking campuses to review their workplace violence policy with a focus on notification of dangerous incidents. Our community college presidents will be asked to review the law enforcement status and staffing of their campus safety departments. In addition, I will ask for legislative support for a proposal that will enable community college peace officers to be able to conduct background checks in accordance with existing laws regarding lawful arrests.
While it may be tempting to try to come up with one solution or strategy for securing the safety of our campuses, we believe it would be inappropriate to impose a single approach to any of these issues including communication with the campus community. We all have the same goal of ensuring the safety of all students, faculty and staff. Instead, we ask for the necessary support and funding to New York’s public colleges to implement appropriate methodologies of crisis communications, crisis planning and public safety, in addition to the necessary funding to enhance our mental health counseling program.
In conclusion, the State University has a long history of fostering a safe and secure environment for students and employees. We were the first to institute Personal Safety Committees on our campuses which are comprised of students, faculty and staff. These committees review current campus security policies and procedures and make recommendations for their improvement. We have sponsored large university-wide workshops on safety and emergency response. Our professional police force is specifically trained to address safety issues related to working with college students. Our residence life staff, including residence hall directors and resident assistants, receives, on average, over 100 hours of training on an annual basis. Clearly we are doing a great deal to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff. With your continued leadership, guidance and financial support, we intend to build on our current programs and enhance the safety and security of each of our 64 campuses. And we sincerely hope all this preparation and training will never have to be utilized.