How prepared are Virginia’s colleges?

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RICHMOND — In the wake of Monday’s tragedy at Virginia Tech, those at the commonwealth’s colleges and universities are asking themselves how they would react in a similar emergency situation.

“We know that when something happens we need to use a variety of communication channels,” said Pam Lepley, director of University News Services at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Lepley said the university currently uses e-mails, its alert Web site, the news media, dormitory intercoms and in-person messengers to communicate emergency notifications.

The school is planning to install electronic message boards in the high-traffic areas of campus to display daily and emergency information.

Also in the works is an opt-in text messaging service students could sign up for to be notified of inclement weather closings and emergencies via cell phones.

“Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent the irrational act of someone intent on committing a violent act on campus or anywhere else,” said John Bennett, senior vice president of finance and administration. “What VCU can do and does do is remain focused on maintaining a safe and secure campus.”

Bennett said the university has 78 police officers in its department and 220 security officers in dorms and academic buildings. The school’s weapons policy prohibits staff and students from carrying knives longer than three-fourths of an inch or firearms of any type on campus.

Like VCU, Tech is a state university with a diverse student population of more than 20,000 students.

A VCU security guard, who asked to remain anonymous, said the school’s security is vastly superior to Tech’s, but security guards might not have helped in that situation.

“Nothing short of putting armed guards in the dorms will stop that sort of thing from happening,” the guard said. “Armed security is very expensive. It makes for a very uninviting living experience.”

Col. William Parrish, program coordinator for the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program at VCU and former senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, agrees that there is no perfect answer.

“At the end of the day, there is no 100 percent school solution to provide 100 percent protection,” Parrish said.

Parrish said it’s unfortunate that these kinds of events are needed to wake people up, but he is certain that most institutions in the country will be referring to Monday’s event when assessing their own security and communication systems.

“The best thing to do is what most institutions are doing — trying to improve their situations, and pausing and praying for the affected students and families,” Parrish said.

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