- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Students attending Howard University have gained an extra sense of security on campus.

The university has embraced Rave Guardian, a technological system designed to let students use their cell phones to alert campus police to emergencies. That could mean a medical issue, traffic accident or, in a worst-case scenario, a physical assault.

Howard University Police Chief Leroy K. James says the Rave system “puts another tool in the hands of our students.”

That said, the modern campus demands an interlocking series of safety precautions to prepare for as many contingencies as possible. Safety concerns at Howard tend to be more challenging than those facing schools in other parts of the country, Chief James says.

“New students haven’t been to the city before. It’s a new environment for them,” he says. “We’re in the middle of a city, surrounded by a lot of different neighborhoods.”

Raju Rishi, co-founder and chief strategy officer of New York-based Rave Wireless, says more than 150 universities across the country use its product, including American University, Colorado State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Students, who must opt in to use the system, can activate it either as a panic alarm or on timer mode.

If a student pushes the panic button (a pre-selected speed-dial number on his or her cell phone), the student’s picture, safety profile (vehicle information, medical background) and location are sent immediately to campus police. The device works with all cell-phone carriers, Mr. Rishi says.

The more passive timer mode helps students who may feel unsafe get an added level of security. A student can set the timer for, say, a 15-minute walk across campus. If the student doesn’t turn off the alarm before the 15 minutes have elapsed, the student’s information is sent through the system, and campus police are called to action. If the student reaches the destination safely, he or she punches in a deactivation code.

Mr. Rishi says police databases only collect information when the panic button is pushed or the system is otherwise activated.

“That’s required from the campus standpoint, like a 911 call,” he says.

American University Police Chief Michael McNair says he spoke to officials at several colleges, including the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, before his campus adopted the Rave system.

“It seemed to be a good fit for our campus. Many go into D.C. for internships. It’s nice to have a lifeline people can call,” Chief McNair says.

The system is superior to stationary emergency phones for two reasons, he says. Budgets don’t allow for phones to be installed in as many places as campus police might like, and the phones only provide the student’s location, nothing more.

So far, no AU student has had to call upon the Rave system in an emergency, he says.

However, students have questions about the technology, such as, “Does this mean my mom and dad will know I’m out drinking in a bar?”

“It only activates when [students] activate it,” he tells them.

Robin Hattersley Gray, executive editor of Campus Safety Magazine, says many universities have ramped up their emergency services in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

Suddenly, mass-notification systems were in demand like never before on campuses nationwide, Ms. Hattersley Gray says.

Today, campuses offer a multitude of ways to alert students to everything from physical danger to extreme weather conditions.

“You don’t want to just send out messages to e-mail and cell phones. You also want a siren or loudspeaker device,” she says, adding that it should be as integral to an emergency system as pop-up text messages on university computers.

Privacy remains an issue when a security system has access to students’ records or other information. Should someone get hold of a campus’s database, “it could ruin the credibility of a mass-notification system,” Ms. Hattersley Gray says. So far, to her knowledge, no such incident has occurred.

Campuses also shouldn’t abuse any mass-notification system.

“If they’re sending a lot of spam or non-emergency-related stuff, it’s a really good way to get students to opt out of the system,” she says.

Other high-tech advancements on campuses include video monitoring and upgraded building access technology, she says.

No matter how high-tech today’s campuses might get, Chief James insists hands-on methods remain a key crime deterrent.

“One of the things we’re making sure of is that our [officers] are visible 24 hours a day on campus,” he says.

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