Winthrop boosting campus security

Rock Hill • South Carolina

SUNDAY September 2, 2007


In the midst of recent reports on what could have been done to prevent the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy that left 33 people dead, Winthrop University is making its own plans for emergency response preparedness.

The university has set aside $100,000 for new technology that includes installing an alert system with display panels, strobe lights and sirens, said Frank Ardaiolo, vice president for student life.

The 50 screens will flash emergency messages and will be in buildings around campus.

Ardaiolo said the school also is installing a system capable of sending mass text messages to students and faculty members who subscribe to the service.

The process is not far enough along for people to start signing up, but Ardaiolo said the school has begun collecting numbers from freshmen.

He said he expects both systems to be installed this year.

"Right after Virginia Tech we were inundated with e-mails and solicitations to buy this system and that system, all these other systems," Ardaiolo said. "We did not rush to judgment. We bought systems that we thought really could deliver and get past some of the technological difficulties that can happen."

Although they haven't forgotten the shootings at Virginia Tech, many students at Winthrop said the incident isn't at the forefront of their minds anymore. "Ever since Virginia Tech, I'm a little more uncomfortable than usual," sophomore Bret Preslar said. "But I feel generally safe."

Preslar and her friend, junior Danielle Frain, said they don't like walking alone at night, walking where there aren't emergency call boxes or walking from distant parking lots.

Like many other students, both said the new technology would be a welcome addition.

"They needed that then," Preslar said, referring to the Virginia Tech incident.

Ardaiolo said that a planned upgrade of the music system in Tillman tower also could be useful as an intercom in the event of a major emergency.

Winthrop police Chief Frank Zebedis, who is trained in critical incident response, said the technology could be used in other situations to get information to the university community quickly.

"I see us from time to time maybe having to use it for weather-related incidences, not so much the Virginia Tech deal, but it's in place if something like that ever happened," he said. "I think it's going to be a big plus for our campus."

The day-to-day

Emergency response technology is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to keeping the campus safe.

Campus officials are distributing wallet-sized cards with safety tips and emergency numbers to remind students what it takes to stay safe.

Students are encouraged to sign up for free rape defense classes through the police department.

Several high-profile incidents last year drew attention to campus safety issues, including a burglary and attempted sexual assault in a women's residence hall.

Zebedis said that doesn't mean the campus isn't safe.

"From time to time, these things are going to happen," he said. "We don't have gates around our campus. ... Fortunately, as I knock on wood, we don't have more of these things, and it's our job to try to keep them from happening."

Other safety precautions include security cameras and emergency call boxes that connect directly to police.

Zebedis said it's especially important for students to travel in groups.

"We encourage people to be out in numbers," he said. "Numbers will discourage the bad guys most of the time."

If they are alone, students can call the campus police department and request an escort to class, residence halls or nearby off-campus houses.

Zebedis said the department gets a few calls for escorts every week.

This school year, there has been one robbery on campus.

"It's had the effect of once again reminding people that they are not immune from the ills of society," Ardaiolo said. "I think young people by nature have a false sense of security."

Access to campus residence halls is controlled 24 hours a day, and students must swipe their ID cards to get in.

Owens Hall, Winthrop's newest classroom building, also has card-controlled access.

School spokeswoman Rebecca Masters declined to elaborate on the system, citing security reasons.

• Travel in a group when possible.

• Report suspicious persons or criminal activity to the police.

• Don't leave books or valuables unattended.

• Keep car doors locked, windows up and valuables out of sight.

• Keep doors and windows of residence hall rooms locked at all times.

• Keep a record of the make, model and serial number of all valuables.