UNC Rising to Challenge of Improving Campus Safety

If there’s a new way of training or a new piece of technology that might make the University of North Carolina’s 17 campuses safer, odds are that Brent Herron is going to be on top of it, figuring out ways to secure and incorporate it into the University’s safety plan.

When Herron left the United States Secret Service in 2008 to become the UNC system’s associate vice president of campus safety and emergency operations, he was hired by then-President Erskine Bowles to help all UNC campuses improve security in the wake of the Virginia Tech mass shooting the year before.

“The No. 1 recommendation of the 2007 Campus Safety Task Force established by President Bowles was that the University needed somebody here to work as a liaison between General Administration and the campuses on safety and security issues,” Herron said.

Since then, the University has continued to expand and improve its safety plans, including making safety a consistent element of its legislative budget request.

“The safety of our students, faculty and staff has remained a top priority since I came to UNC,” said Kevin FitzGerald, UNC senior vice president and chief of staff. “I know Brent Herron and safety personnel on all of our campuses are constantly training to improve their responses to any situation that arises on campus.”

While campus shootings might be the most talked-about safety issue facing any university, the scope is much broader, ranging from sexual assault prevention on campus to natural disaster preparation.

To make sure the campuses are prepared, Herron not only has regular monthly meetings with campus police chiefs and emergency management coordinators, but also meets with local and state first responders to coordinate efforts.

In addition, the University has been working to improve the resources available to students and faculty.

“There were a couple of major things the administration wanted to address when I first arrived,” Herron said. “One was to make sure the campuses were making resources available to students who might be a risk to themselves or others. They wanted teams of trained people with the ability to review those types of situations and make recommendations. The second was to make sure the campuses had emergency plans in place to handle a large-type of event occurring, and the training that went along with it.”

In 2009 and 2010, campus personnel participated in more than 30 training simulations that included active shooter and weather-related scenarios.

“We involved over 2,000 people across the state of North Carolina,” Herron said. “In addition to all 17 of the UNC campuses -- which includes the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics – the training also included the active participation of 118 local, state and federal agencies. So, it was a big deal, and it was embraced by the president all the way down. We took lessons learned from the exercises and identified key areas that needed to be addressed from a system-wide approach.”

Currently, Herron said, all campuses take part in at least two training simulations per year.

“Training has become such an ingrained thing now that university campuses just do it,” he said. “It’s making sure that the key folks on campus know what to do. The other part is making sure folks outside the campus know what you are doing too. So any exercises we do we typically involve the community that we’re in – the city police, the fire department, and volunteer agencies participate.”

Everything is a learning situation

Campus police chiefs and emergency management coordinators work through Herron and use regular meetings to keep each other abreast of notable incidents on or near UNC campuses.  They also pay attention to what happens elsewhere in North Carolina and in other states, Herron said.

For example, he pointed to an incident at the University of Texas at Austin, where a student ran into the library with a rifle and killed himself. Herron said he and his staff invited the chief of police for the University of Texas to talk to them about the incident, in which the whole campus was evacuated.

“We had him come speak to us for two hours about what lessons were learned, and they learned a lot of lessons,” Herron said. “We take those type of situations, present them to folks, and learn as much as we can.”

New equipment, techniques

Nationally, there has been a call for law enforcement agencies to equip officers with body cameras to record a full account of officer interactions.

Herron said the University is part of that effort, and that several campuses have already either equipped officers with body cameras or are in the process of doing so.

“There’s no current UNC policy that requires officers to have body cameras, but at the same time, we know it is another tool that could enhance the level of professionalism provided to the campuses,” he said. “It’s definitely something we’re taking a real hard look at. But it’s up to each campus to decide to implement the cameras or not.”

Beyond the body cameras, each campus also has added more closed-circuit TV cameras.

Herron said that CCTV cameras are a best practice option for universities, the same way that computerized key cards are for campus living spaces.

Thanks to social media, the University now has more ways than ever to contact students and staff members in case of an emergency, using everything from automated text messages to Facebook and Twitter alerts. Those messages can warn people to avoid certain areas during a lockdown or tell people within a certain area to take shelter.

However, social media also can be a double-edged sword, Herron said. Sometimes, officers have to deal with inaccurate information that’s being sent out via social media during a crisis situation. Other times, people have made threats anonymously against campuses using social media, giving Herron and officers much more to look out for than they might have had to 20 years ago.

“We have to be as educated as anyone about social media channels, and understand what the limitations are, and deal with it,” he said. “That presents its own challenges.”

Herron said the University’s safety policies are constantly being reviewed and updated to ensure compliance with state and federal regulations.

“Keeping our campuses safe and secure is a 24/7-, 365-day effort,” he said.

Herron said that he thinks that thanks to the increased resources for students, campuses are seeing more reports about incidents such as sexual assaults that might not have been reported in previous years.

“There are more ways now for students to make a report,” he said. “We have anonymous means for them to report these crimes. I think the campuses do a better job of educating them about it.”

Other types of emergencies

Beyond dealing with criminal acts, the other key part of Herron’s job is dealing with natural disasters, such as severe weather. Emergency management and Environmental, Health & Safety personnel on the campuses hold their own mock disasters to practice mass evacuations and medical drills.

They are also responsible for campus safety issues, such as disposing of hazardous waste and making sure that places such as science labs are properly maintained. They make sure that OSHA regulations are followed and that workers are trained in emergency responses if, for example, there’s a chemical spill or a power outage.

A lot of the safety procedures are pre-emptive. For example, if officials learn that a campus might be facing a severe ice storm, Herron and other safety officials will hold a conference call days in advance to discuss what campuses might be dealing with and to coordinate with state emergency officials.

UNC Campus Security Initiative

Herron noted that under the leadership of former UNC presidents Molly Broad, Erskine Bowles and Tom Ross, there have been several task forces formed to consider new safety initiatives for UNC campuses. Most recently, the UNC Campus Security Initiative focused on how campuses were complying with Title IX and the Clery Act, and how the UNC police departments were doing in terms of public safety.

The Board of Governors approved a $30 campus security fee that went into effect in the fall to help implement key recommendations that emerged from that months-long review. Herron said the bulk of the money stays at the campuses, while a small subset of the resources are used by General Administration for system-wide initiatives.

Revenues from the fee will help bring pay for campus police officers to market rates, place Clery compliance coordinators on every campus; and provide a pool of system resources to support Title IX investigations and adjudication.

The funding also will help bring more system-wide training for campus police officers and counselors.

Herron said that when he discusses campus safety, campus counseling centers are just as important as police and emergency management workers.

“They’re the ones at the tip of the spear when dealing with students,” he said. “They have the first contact with students who might need help.”

Written by Phillip Ramati

Newly formed safety committee to examine priorities for UNC

One of more than 30 recommendations that emerged from the UNC Campus Security Initiative was the creation of a systemwide Campus Security Committee comprised of experts from a variety of fields. This new standing committee, headed up by Paul Cousins, director of student conduct at North Carolina State University, is holding its initial meeting this month.

“President Ross formed this group from a wide range of people,” Cousins said. “We’ll serve in an advisory capacity to incoming President Spellings and the staff at General Administration.”

There are 24 people on the committee from across the UNC system, including a student representative. Members will serve from one to three years.

Cousins said the first meeting likely will focus on establishing four subcommittees that will consider: establishing new policies on sexual harassment/violence; new policies on reporting safety issues to leadership; creating a Title IX investigative manual; and training employees in federal statutes such as Title IX and the Clery Act, as well as state law.

Cousins said the committee will provide more uniform responses that cover all UNC campuses, no matter their size, as well as provide greater access to expertise on various safety-related matters.

“We want to establish structure early on so that we can attack specific tasks that seem more urgent,” he said.