Study finds security inconsistent at NJ colleges

March 3, 2008 3:03:00 PM PST
Five months after a state panel recommended changes designed to improve college safety in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting rampage, security at many campuses across the state remains inconsistent, said the state's Homeland Security director. Testifying Monday before the state Assembly's Higher Education committee, Richard Canas said the state's colleges have been good about sharing campus security information, but there is still significant variation in emergency preparedness.

"There's no uniformity or mandate yet," said Canas. "We erred on the side of giving latitude."

Canas was giving legislators an update on the progress of the Campus Security Task Force, which recommended in October that state colleges update their emergency management plans, provide preventative mental health services and create an immediate warning system for emergencies.

Some lawmakers expressed dismay at the inconsistency of security plans from school to school.

For example, lawmakers pointed out that only 14 of 59 institutions have an armed security force. And in the event of an emergency, some colleges would defer entirely to local law enforcement while others prefer that their own officers maintain control.

Committee Chairman Patrick J. Diegnan, D-Middlesex, questioned why schools weren't required to take certain steps to improve safety.

"Your report appears to be entirely recommendations," said Diegnan. "There seems to be no enforcement, which I find very disturbing."

The Homeland Security director said part of the reason for the lack of mandates was that the schools were all making progress to improve college security.

"The reason we took the softer approach is because the level of cooperation was dramatic," explained Canas, who stressed that all institutions had laid out emergency plans for review, even if plans weren't the same from one school to the next.

Canas also said his department was only authorized to coordinate information sharing and suggest best practices - not mandate compliance.

"We're hoping it doesn't come to that," Canas said. "Because mandates usually mean money, and right now we're in pretty dire straits here."

Jane Oates, the executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, said the variety of security preparations was due in large part to the variety of institutions of higher learning, like small religious schools that had never considered themselves at risk.

"These rabbinicals never thought about campus security," said Oates. "They never thought of themselves as a campus."