Information technology has become a vital part of the daily lives of much of the globe, especially students on and off high school and college campuses.
Campus-wide messaging systems can serve as a rapid notification device not only to call attention to important events, but also to alert interested parties to potential dangers or emergencies.
UCLA utilized its messaging system, BruinAlert, earlier this month to disseminate information regarding an on-campus incident when a student was allegedly stabbed by her laboratory partner. Other universities, including Loyola Marymount University (LMU), employ similar systems.
An instant messaging system called Connect-ED has been in use at LMU for approximately two and a half years and university officials are satisfied with how it functions, says Kathleen Flanagan, LMU’s vice president for government and communications.
“It’s sometimes hard to imagine what life was like without it,” Flanagan said.
The university purchased the instant messaging system from NTI Group, Inc., in 2007 and Connect-ED was installed in April of that year.
“(Connect-ED) will allow us to communicate with a large number of people simultaneously very quickly,” Erin Griffin, LMU’s former vice president of information technology who helped install the messaging system, said in an earlier interview. “This is a new tool that will help us protect our students.”
The service enables school administrators to record, schedule, send, and track personalized voice messages to tens of thousands of students, parents and staff members in minutes. Alerts are sent to landlines, cellular phones, e-mail addresses and hand-held devices like Blackberries.
LMU employs the messaging service approximately ten times a year, said Flanagan.
“We use it for events like the Great (California) Shakeout (an annual earthquake drill that occurs countywide), if there are power outages, major traffic accidents and just to make sure that everyone is receiving our messages,” Flanagan explained.
The public safety department is responsible for activating Connected-ED. The department disseminates the broadcasts and provides followup alerts as they are needed.
LMU Public Safety Chief Hampton Cantrell said that after examining the mass communications system when he arrived at the university last summer, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was well-functioning.
“When I looked at it, I found that it was a lot more robust than I originally thought,” he said.
LMU students interviewed by The Argonaut had a favorable impression of Connect-ED. Veronica Escobedo, 19, says that Connect-ED can be utilized by students as a means to stay abreast of events that are ongoing outside the campus.
“Sometimes at LMU you can find that you’re in a little bit of a bubble,” said Escobedo, a sophomore who is majoring in political science. “I really like it because it informs you of what’s going on at school and off campus.”
In December 2007, the university had an occasion to use the system when an online threat caused a great deal of anxiety on campus. Carlos Huerta, then 21, allegedly posted a blog on JuicyCampus.com that police traced to him about shooting and killing as many people as possible until he was either stopped or killed. Huerta, who was an LMU student, was taken into custody near his campus apartment the next day and charged with making terrorist threats.
JuicyCampus.com, a Web site that focused on gossip and rumors related to colleges and universities, went out of business in February.
Senior Chelsey Allodi, 21, was living on campus when the blog threat was posted. She was alerted by friends who were notified through their cellular phones by text message.
“I was planning to go to school that day when my friends received the notification,” Allodi, who is majoring in sociology and now lives off campus, recalled. “I think having the notification system is really beneficial.”
The instant messaging service was put in place by the university four days after the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech University where 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho killed 27 students and five faculty members before committing suicide in the deadliest shooting incident in modern U.S. history. While Griffin said the massacre was not the impetus for installing an instant messaging system for students and faculty, Allodi said that having Connect-ED in the event of a tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech is very comforting.
“It can be really helpful if there is ever any kind of incident where students need to know that there might be a major incident on campus,” she said.
Taylor Polk agrees.
“Although those incidents are very tragic, it’s good to know that we’re prepared in case something like that were to happen,” said Polk, a senior who is a multi-media major. “Something could happen on one side of the campus and students on another side of the campus might not know about it.”
Flanagan said that the blog threat was the “perfect incident of when we have had to use our system to let everyone know what’s going on and whether they should take special precautions.”
Natasha Rabe, chief business officer for NTI, said that in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, many universities responded by having students provide additional methods of communication in order to be prepared in the event of an emergency.
“We have seen an influx in students who have updated their contact information, which is the most important component in the service,” Rabe noted. “It’s essential that universities have updated information to be able to communicate with their students.”
Santa Monica College has an emergency notification system as well, although the college utilizes its in a different way.
“We usually use our system for marketing purposes,” said Bruce Smith, SMC’s public information officer.
Like LMU, the college did employ the service during the Great California Shakeout.
Flanagan said that there is flexibility to use the Connect-ED system for specific reasons.
“We can selectively send messages to discrete groups,” she said. “We’re very pleased with what we have.”
Polk, like Allodi, feels that having the notification service in place is to everyone’s benefit.
“It’s always good to have a way to get in touch with all students at the same time,” he said.
Cantrell says that because the mass notification service has certain technical limitations, he would like to explore installing an outdoor public address system to supplement Connect-ED.
“This would increase the likelihood that we will be able to notify as many in the university community as possible,” said the chief.