February 15, 2008

University responds to tragedy at NIU

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard and leaders at the University's Carbondale campus today (Feb. 15) expressed sympathy and support for the Northern Illinois University community as they outlined steps the University is taking to ensure student safety.

A day after a student gunman at NIU killed five students and wounded 16 before killing himself, University officials said the event prompted them to again review emergency plans aimed at preventing or responding to a similar incident here.

Poshard said he and other university leaders across the state spoke by teleconference with Gov. Rod Blagojevich Thursday soon after the shootings and he assured the governor the University would take all possible steps to ensure safety.

"During that conference call, I had an opportunity to express to the officials at Northern Illinois University our greatest sympathy for what occurred yesterday at our sister campus," Poshard said. "I offered them our University's assistance in any way needed and let (NIU President John) Peters know that the thoughts and prayers of the entire SIU community are with his students, parents, faculty and staff.

"This was a senseless act and now represents the second time in less than one year that a college campus in this country has experienced a mass killing. In response to this tragedy I convened a meeting last night with our chancellors and their management teams on our campuses to ensure that this University was as prepared as anyone could possible be prepared after the event that took place at Northern," Poshard said.

SIUC Chancellor Fernando M. Treviño said the campus has a strong plan in place aimed at preventing or responding to emergency incidents. The campus currently is testing an emergency text messaging service that will compliment its already existing emergency communications and notification systems. In addition, officials are reviewing the campus emergency plan and upgrading safety considerations, such as early warning systems and adequate police presence at all times. Campus officials also are ensuring counselors are available to the campus community and that a process for adequate parental notification is in place.

Todd D. Sigler, director of the SIUC Department of Public Safety, said his department has deployed additional officers at residence halls and classroom buildings to reassure the campus community. He again encouraged anyone to report suspicious behavior to campus officials and outlined the layered approach, using several different methods, SIUC uses to inform its community of any emergency. Those methods include a network of emergency radios at various points around campus, a mass email alert system, some public address systems, Building Emergency Response Teams and agreements with campus and local media to carry information during emergencies. The University also has mutual aid agreements in place with many area law enforcement and emergency response agencies to assist it during an emergency.

"The key is redundancy," Sigler said.

Sigler acknowledged no security system is 100 percent effective but said society is getting better at noticing and reporting suspicious behavior, and police agencies constantly are improving emergency plans and response times. He pointed out students are not allowed to have firearms on the SIUC campus unless they store them at the Department of Public Safety.

Violations of that policy will result in possible criminal charges as well as a violation of the Student Conduct Code and therefore would be subject to review by Student Judicial Affairs, which also can reprimand the violator, said Larry H. Dietz, vice chancellor for student affairs.

"We would take that very seriously if there was a violation of that policy and Judicial Affairs would act on that within 24 hours," Dietz said. Violators could be removed from the University.

Dietz said the University is aware that many students, faculty and staff have family, friends and colleagues at NIU and that all 13 of SIUC's professional counselors would be available beginning today and all next week to members of the campus community. He said officials today would send a mass email throughout campus providing information about SIUC counseling services and other information.

Dietz also encouraged students to call home and assure their families and loved ones they are all right. "That simple call means a lot," he said.

The University also recently updated its parental notification system, that functions as a "phone tree" to get the word out to parents in the event of a campus emergency, he said.

Demetrous White, president of the Undergraduate Student Government, and Steven Middleton, president of the Graduate & Professional Student Council, also expressed sympathy and support for their fellow students at NIU. White said the groups are planning a vigil set for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19 at Shryock Auditorium's front steps to show support for NIU. Sigler also will attend both groups' upcoming meetings to share more information about the campus emergency plans.

Poshard praised Gov. Blagojevich, his staff and state higher education leaders for the quick response to the NIU event and pledged the University's dedication to its community's safety.

"We're in the business of doing everything we can to prevent the kind of thing that happened at Northern Illinois University," he said.