At many colleges across the country this summer, one topic has vaulted to the top of the agenda at freshman orientation: campus safety.
The nation’s first incoming freshmen since the April shootings at Virginia Tech are heading to class soon, and colleges have been fielding more questions from parents and students about security and mental-health issues.
Some, such as Binghamton University in New York, have added or augmented orientation sessions — expanding time devoted entirely to campus safety. Others, such as Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania, are explaining new mass text-message systems put in place to help reach students and parents quickly in emergencies, be it a situation like the Virginia Tech shooting spree or a scenario such as a fire or chemical spill.
Colleges say they don’t want to scare parents but want to convey that they take security seriously.
Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas used to refer students and parents to the school’s emergency-response plan. This year, the campus police chief briefed orientation leaders to prepare them for questions and spoke directly to parents.
Small colleges often have orientation just before the academic year begins, in August or September. Larger schools tend to have students and parents visit in shifts over the summer.
At Binghamton, part of the State University of New York system, broader issues such as dorm locks have been raised at orientation sessions, but the major topic in talks with parents was, “How do we communicate?” said Kenneth Holmes, assistant vice president for student life.
New emergency procedures there include a campus bell tone that can be sounded to signal emergencies. There’s also new technology for sending text messages en masse, and for flashing messages to students over campus computer or cable TV networks.
Hope College in Michigan says communication is also a big topic — but it’s also emphasizing the responsibility of students to communicate with each other and with authorities about potential dangers.
Security has always been on the orientation agenda and a top priority, said Richard Frost, Hope’s dean of students.
“However, because of the anxieties of Virginia Tech and Eastern Michigan” — where the university president recently lost his job after a high-profile slaying that was covered up — “we need to be clearer about that to parents,” Mr. Frost said.
At Delaware Valley College, near Philadelphia, director of public safety and security Chris Daley has been giving visiting parents details about a new communications system that sends emergency information to those who have registered their cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
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