Colleges learning security matters

UMBC, other facilities seek to allay fears of parents, students

January 07, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

There are no state secrets in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's newest dorm, but trying to visit it is about as easy as gaining entry to a Pentagon war room.

Students visiting the 250-bed New Hall, which opened in August, must call up to their friend by telephone from the building's lobby and then stand in front of a camera in the lobby ceiling. The friend must then leave his or her room and go to the end of the hallway, where a video screen shows an image of the visitor.

After verifying the visitor's identity, the student can press a button activating an elevator in the lobby and must wait to let the visitor through a door into the hallway.

The security system might seem elaborate for the low-crime campus in suburban Catonsville, but UMBC officials say the high-tech entry mechanism is proving popular - especially with students' parents and especially after Sept. 11.

"If you [are] a parent who is not with their son or daughter at a time of fear, it's hard to be away from them if you're not personally in control of their safety," said Nancy Young, UMBC's director of housing. "We get calls from parents saying we're not secure enough. It's `I'm used to taking care of this person and I want them to be safe.'"

Around the Baltimore area, colleges and universities are not only instituting new security measures after Sept. 11 to reassure students and their parents; they are also making an extra effort to promote measures put into place before the attacks, such as the UMBC entry system, aware that in a tense time, campus security has become a selling point for prospective students.

"Parents and students are asking schools and admission directors more questions about crime and what they're doing, and schools are learning that they can take a negative situation and make it positive," said Howard Clery III, the executive director of Security on Campus, a Pennsylvania-based group that monitors campus crime. "They're learning they can sell these things and set themselves apart from other schools."

For some schools, the new security measures are clearly targeted at potential terrorist attacks; for others, heightened security awareness has resulted in steps more likely to protect against usual campus crime.

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore, security officials have created new back-up emergency plans and changed the school's former snow information number into a 24-hour "emergency information line." The school is also building new emergency command rooms at opposite ends of the downtown Baltimore campus in case one cannot be used.

Even before Sept. 11, the University of Maryland, College Park was improving its video surveillance center, where security officers monitor cameras posted around campus; the university is now updating its emergency preparedness plans. At Towson University, the number of "blue-light" emergency phones has doubled to 53 since last year; the campus police department held three sessions last semester to educate students and faculty about anthrax.

With the exception of the College Park campus, which saw a spate of armed robberies last semester, the heightened security comes at a time when campus crime has remained level or dropped off at most schools. UMBC, for one, reported just 23 burglaries total in 1999 and 2000, compared with 346 at the larger College Park campus over that period.

Despite its low incidence of crime, UMBC's Young said, the university decided the high-tech entry mechanism was worth the cost, which she said is slightly higher than other security options, including staffing a security desk. Students complained that posting guards like those found at other UMBC dorms would compromise their privacy.

At the same time, Young said, simply giving residents key-card access and allowing them to buzz visitors in from their rooms might allow unauthorized people to follow legitimate visitors into the building. That, she said, would imperil the security of the common areas in the new dorm, where students can congregate outside their rooms, which also have locks.

"We don't want outside people to have access to group space. We're trying to do two things that are opposed to each other: create community and privacy," Young said. "We feel strongly that having gone to card access, we want two points of control in case one fails."

Students living in the dorm said they appreciate not having to pass security guards downstairs but dislike the inconvenience of having to walk down the hall to the video screen when friends visit. The system prevents New Hall residents from dropping in on friends on other floors of the dorm without calling ahead, they noted.

"I understand the security idea, but for socializing it's not a really good idea," said Koniba Pleah, a senior. "I never felt insecure, no matter where I lived here."

Chris Badger, a sophomore from Anne Arundel County, was more accepting. "It's kind of a tradeoff," he said. "[The camera] definitely tells you [the visitor] is who you know, and not someone else."

Young was sympathetic to student complaints about inconvenience but said that was the price of security in an insecure time.

"My concern is to be pro-active and preventive," she said. "We've been extremely fortunate, but we don't want to count on that good fortune."

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