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NIU shooting points out campus safety issues

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Posted: Monday, February 18, 2008 12:00 am

It's not something any student should have to worry about when they're sitting in a geology lecture on a Thursday afternoon.

But when an armed graduate student stepped from behind the screen on a lecture hall stage at Northern Illinois University, another violent tragedy played out on an American college campus.

Less than a year after the Virginia Tech tragedy in which 32 were killed, the news from DeKalb, Ill., struck a chord.

When the gunfire stopped, five lay dead, and students across the country had yet another reason to look over their shoulders.

"In spite of the enormity of this tragedy, it could have been worse," NIU spokeswoman Melanie Magara told The Associated Press on Friday.

It could have been.

With 25,000 students, NIU is roughly half the size of UF, and it took no more than two minutes from the first 911 call for campus police to make it to Cole Hall.

But by the time they did, three students and the gunman were already dead.

And while no emergency plan could have prevented that mentally ill man from concealing guns in a guitar case and trekking across the snow to initiate a massacre, we have to hope that there is something that can be done to help university students feel more secure.

Amid the fear, anger and frustration coming out of this horrible event, we have to ask, what, if anything, could be done to keep UF students feeling safer?

In the search for the equilibrium between security and practicality, we find ourselves feeling more than a little nervous knowing that UF is relying on an emergency text-messaging system that only reached 86 percent of its intended audience in close to one hour.

That's about 30 times longer than it took the NIU shooter to finish his rampage.

And that's just not fast enough.

Any step a university can take to ensure students a safer learning environment while keeping them informed about what is happening on their campus is a step in the right direction.

In the wake of Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia installed a university-wide siren PA system and a permanent emergency-management office.

So why isn't UF doing something similar and something more than just outsourcing the job to Mobile Campus for the text-messaging service?

With more than 230 Emergency Blue Light Phones around UF, the university could certainly utilize infrastructure that is already in place to warn students quickly and efficiently with a prominent alert system.

When seconds count, minutes may as well be days.

We do appreciate President Bernie Machen's response to the tragic news from Illinois and his communication with the student body through e-mail. We applaud his stated commitment to keeping our campus environment free and open.

Machen, who fought to keep concealed weapons off campus when he was president of the University of Utah, also promised to continue to strike a balance between safety and openness.

We stand behind his efforts and agree with his stance to keep all firearms off a college campus - because a school where students can carry weapons along with their laptops and lattes is not a place where we want to learn.

But we ultimately trust and expect administrators to continue to come up with innovative ways to prepare for the worst.

Our lives depend on it.

Welcome to the discussion.