Report: Mass. colleges slow to adopt new security measures

Massachusetts public colleges and universities have been slow to adopt widely accepted security practices since last year's Virginia Tech massacre, in many cases failing to apply basic measures, according to a critical report that calls for sweeping changes across the state system to avert campus violence.

The report, compiled by a team of specialists and presented to the state Board of Higher Education yesterday, cited numerous safety deficiencies across the state system and urged the 29 public colleges to take immediate steps to rectify them.

Most state colleges do not use security cameras, have gun-carrying police officers, or train faculty and staff to recognize troubled students and employees, the report found. Only a handful have conducted vulnerability assessments, and one-third do not have arrangements with local law enforcement to respond to emergencies.

"Having a threat assessment team is an absolute no-brainer, and it could be done tomorrow," said Daniel O'Neill, an author of the report and president of Applied Risk Management, a security consultant. "That single recommendation would save the greatest amount of lives."

Since the Virginia Tech shootings, Massachusetts public colleges, as well as their private counterparts, have taken a hard look at emergency policies and in many cases made sweeping changes. All state schools now have mass notification systems that included e-mail, text-messaging, and Web alerts, and some have received training from the FBI for interpreting violent writings.

Still, the report said, colleges must take further steps to prepare for emergencies and to reach out to troubled students.

The 114-page study was undertaken after the Virginia Tech shootings April 2007, when a gunman who had exhibited a lengthy pattern of unstable and antisocial behavior killed 32 people. The study found that most schools lack formal procedures for handling students who seem capable of violence and do not submit writing with violent images to a forensic specialist for review.

Other authors of the report said formal, preventive policies would help colleges spot warning signs and resolve situations before they surface. The Virginia Tech gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, had raised concerns with his disturbing writings for a creative writing class.

Nearly all public colleges in Massachusetts reported a greater number of students with severe mental illness in recent years, but just over half provide specialized mental health services, the report found.

The study recommended that colleges train faculty, staff, and students to recognize signs of mental illness and expand campus mental health services. These steps would also help students with psychiatric problems who are not prone to violence, said the authors of the report.

The state Board of Higher Education praised the report and said it would press colleges to act quickly on the recommendations. Board member Nancy Harrington, former president of Salem State College, said she supported mandated statewide policies, adding that inaction is too risky.

"This is an enormously dangerous issue," she said. "It's like holding a firecracker and waiting for it to explode."

The authors of the report pointed out, however, that serious violence on campuses is extremely rare and that colleges must balance security interests with privacy rights and individual freedoms. There has been just one homicide since 2000 on a state public campus.

There have been 13 fatal mass shootings on US college campuses since 1990. Of those, eight were by graduate students, the report said, calling for a focus on "graduate student disgruntlement."

With that in mind, consultants recommended that colleges ask graduate school applicants about unusual academic histories, criminal records, and disciplinary actions. In addition to Applied Risk Management, the other main authors of the report were James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University; Roger Depue, a behavioral scientist; and Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State College.

Englander cautioned that campus security problems cannot be solved by more robust mental health services alone. "While it's important to strengthen mental health services, it's important not to regard it as the be-all, end-all of violence prevention," she said.

Among policies colleges have adopted, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has created a group of administrators, faculty, and police that meets weekly to discuss individuals who have exhibited threatening or potentially violent behavior. UMass-Amherst has also installed 500 surveillance cameras on campus.

Bridgewater State College has implemented a comprehensive emergency notification program and has armed police vehicles with assault rifles and shotguns. Salem State College has installed 100 emergency call stations, and Mount Wachusett Community College is moving toward arming all campus officers.

Only eight state campuses currently arm their security officers, and the consultants urged more to follow their lead.

Frederick Clark, chairman of the Board of Higher Education, said the matter deserves immediate attention.

UMass-Lowell, UMass-Dartmouth, UMass-Worcester, and Massachusetts Maritime Academy did not participate in the survey.