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Local colleges step up campus safety
Va. Tech shooting puts violence in focus again
Officer Ken Bennett with the Gainesville State College Police Department is part of the bike patrol on the Oakwood campus. Gainesville State monitors its campus several ways, including vehicle patrols, bike patrols and foot patrols. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Following a mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007, safety at local colleges and throughout the country was called into question.

Another shooting on the same campus Dec. 8 only furthered those concerns.

But the outcome of last week's shooting didn't result in nearly the devastation as the 2007 shooting. Many point to an updated alert system to warn students, the same alert system local colleges have implemented.

Those alert systems, though, are only a small aspect of ensuring the safety of thousands of students and faculty on a campus at any given time.

"I've been here for 10 years and things have evolved a lot over those 10 years," said Mike Stapleton, director of public safety at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega.

During that span, in which the student population has nearly doubled, officers have become better equipped and better trained to deal with an assortment of incidents, Stapleton said.

"When I got here the officers had little assortment of equipment. Now they all have vests, our radio systems are better, the officers are better trained, the equipment is better," he added.

Incidents at Virginia Tech as well as a string of armed robberies on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta have proven to be a learning experience for other colleges.

"We monitor and watch that stuff and try to learn the lessons if there's any lessons to be learned," Stapleton said.

School officials hope those lessons will prevent large-scale incidents from occurring on their campuses.

"You're always going to encounter situations that you can't prepare for, but we try very hard to build our planning around every possible scenario that we can think of," said David Morrison, vice president of communications and publications at Brenau University in Gainesville.

"We certainly did (after the initial Virginia Tech shooting) take a real hard look at everything that we were doing and things that we needed to do differently," he added.

Even before the chaos on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, people were already wary of suspicious activity. Security concerns became a national issue following 9/11.

Though state legislation bars weapons from being carried on college campuses, North Georgia is a military college, and cadets are permitted to have weapons during training. Cadets are issued weapons, but they must be stored at an armory and returned after use.

"They're pretty well monitored," Stapleton said. "We don't have a lot of weapons issues here."

When weapons are required for educational purposes, instructors inform school administrators beforehand, Stapleton said.

At other local colleges, weapons are not permitted on campus. They are allowed on school property only when stored in a vehicle.

Carrying a weapon on campus with a carry permit is considered a misdemeanor; doing so without a license is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and two to 10 years in prison.

Yet such incidents rarely become an issue, school officials said.

"We've been very fortunate, and I hope that trend continues," said Sloan Jones, director of public relations and marketing at Gainesville State College.

Colleges and universities monitor campuses several ways, such as vehicle patrols, bike patrols and foot patrols. Call boxes strategically placed throughout campuses also allow students to call for assistance in the event of an emergency.

Many colleges, including Gainesville State, provide students with an escort to their vehicle if requested.

"If someone has an emergency, or needs an escort, or feels uncomfortable in a situation, they can call that number 24/7, as well as use the call boxes," Jones said.

Colleges work closely with local police departments or sheriff's offices to maintain a safe environment.

"We're lucky in that we're a fairly compact campus and we work very closely with the (Lumpkin County) Sheriff's Office," Stapleton said. "We work real closely together and monitor each other's traffic."

The Gainesville Police Department assists Brenau safety officers patrol the Gainesville campus.

"We have very good relationships with local law enforcement and all the emergency responders in town," Morrison said.