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One year after Va. Tech massacre, local campuses have improved security

Gainesville State has certified police department

POSTED: April 27, 2008 5:01 a.m.
ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN/The Times

Police officer Buddy Waldrep gives tickets to students parked in visitors spots at Gainesville State College on Tuesday morning.

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With the shock not completely worn off, colleges nationwide are operating or putting in place security measures to help prevent a repeat of the Virginia Tech massacre, which happened a year ago today.

One example is the upgrade this academic year of Gainesville State College’s campus security office to a certified police department.

Before last April 16, when a lone gunman fatally shot 33 people, including himself, on the Blacksburg, Va., campus, Gainesville State had "started some discussions in upgrading the (office) just based on our size and enrollment," said Sloan Jones, the college’s spokeswoman.

"When we were in the process of all that, Virginia Tech happened," she said. "It certainly did impact the decision to move more toward the police side of things rather than just public safety."

The college created the police department on Oct. 24. The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council recognized the department as a Georgia law enforcement agency in a Nov. 6 letter to the college.

Gainesville State went from a force of eight security guards to four security guards and five sworn officers. The department has new uniforms, sidearms and three patrol cars, among other equipment.

Police Chief Richard Goodson said he expects the department to be fully operational by early May.

"The only thing we’ve been waiting on is to get all of our paperwork, to make sure we have ... all the things you need to do to be an effective police department," he said.

Soon after the tragedy, University of Georgia president Michael F. Adams appointed two study committees, one looking at emergency preparedness and communications and the other looking at psychological services protocols.

As the result of their recommendations, UGA has put in place an enhanced 911 phone system and set up a council that would assess anyone posing potential problems on campus.

UGA, North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, Brenau University in Gainesville and other colleges have established communication systems that involve quickly sending phone messages and text messages to students and faculty in the event of an emergency.

Colleges also are increasing the number of "call boxes" that allow students, at certain strategic locations on campus, to make an emergency phone call to campus security.

Michael F. Stapleton, the campus police chief at NGCSU, said his college is increasing the number of video cameras on campus to 200 from 40.

Also, "we’re training our officers up a little differently," making them more "community-oriented," Singleton said.

"Their job is to get out there and rub elbows with the students," he said. "The students know stuff before we ever see it."

Scott A. Briell, Brenau’s vice president for enrollment management and marketing, said Brenau is "working on a lot of training for students and faculty on what to do in an emergency, what to be aware of, who to contact, really just getting everybody’s understanding that we have to work together to solve these problems."

The Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had alarmed professors and administrators with his behavior and writings, and he was put through a commitment hearing where he was found to be potentially dangerous.

When an off-campus psychiatrist sent him back to the school for outpatient treatment, there was no follow-up to ensure he got it.

Gainesville State had a recent incident involving a student who was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and "had a psychiatrist sign off to allow (the student to return to) school," Goodson said.

"And we were all involved in that. We were all watching (the student)," he said. The situation worked out well for all parties, "but they don’t all work out that cut and dry."

"Campuses aren’t sanctuaries any more than other parts of society," Goodson said. "You’d like to think they are, but I think that’s all the more reason, in this day and age, it’s good to have a police presence there."

Paloma Leon, 20, an early childhood education major at Gainesville State, said she feels comfortable traveling to classes every day.

"But I do wonder sometimes about how our campus is just open for ... any people that are driving (through)," she said. "We have students walking in and out of the campus all of the time."

She would like to see the college, a public institution within the University System of Georgia, take on a little more "privacy."

"We never know what day we could be victims," Leon said. "We pray to God that it never happens."



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