A shooting at Oregon's Umpqua Community College Thursday renewed the gravest concern a parent has when sending students away to college: that their kids' safety could be compromised.
While campus shootings and other big school security threats are relatively rare, experts say, they do happen — and seeing them in the headlines, even far away from where their own child is, can be enough to rattle any parent.
The good news is, most schools offer email or text alerts and even apps that send notifications to parents in the event of an emergency. But not all parents opt in.
“With higher ed, the difficulty is getting people signed up to (alert) systems and keeping them maintained,” said Chris Dorn, analyst for Safe Havens International, a campus safety organization.
Fearing an influx of emails and texts or false panic (as in the case of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's recent apology for a mistaken “active shooter on campus alert”), families may decide to get the information only when they need it. Dorn's advice: Sign up for the alerts. In the event of an actual emergency, those texts can provide a critical lifeline.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., vividly remembers the events surrounding the Boston marathon bombing and violent manhunt in 2013.
Her son was a student at Harvard while much of the area was on lockdown, and like any parent, she felt helpless and terrified. Phone lines were jammed, and she couldn't get through to him. But Harvard kept families in the loop with frequent emails.
“I was trying to get the news and those kinds of updates are incredibly important,” Esty said. “I appreciated very much the university taking that on.”
In 1990, the U.S. passed the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which requires schools that receive federal funding to disclose crime information. While the Clery Act did a lot for school safety awareness, it doesn’t require schools to notify parents and families during emergencies.
“Virginia Tech was a big breaking point.”
Nonetheless, more and more colleges are offering to do just that for parents, even though not all campus crime is major crime.
Esty has another son who's a junior at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Over the last couple of years, Yale has sent alerts to parents about a variety of incidents, including shootings in New Haven that were off-campus.
“I’ve found the campuses are much more open now about that, and much more in touch about letting parents know," she said. "It helps reassure people, and it certainly did for me and my husband to know what procedures the school was taking.”
Colleges have learned a lot about communication during tragedies. Back in 2007, after the mass shooting there, Virginia Tech was praised for its efforts to keep worried families informed.
“Virginia Tech was a big breaking point,” Dorn said, “because they saw that not only do we need to publish reports, but also do a mass notification about lockdowns and other emergencies.”
His advice to families is simple: Stay informed. Seek out any notifications and alerts your child's school offers. If you didn’t get instructions in an orientation packet, go to the school’s website. And follow the school on Facebook and Twitter.
“Some schools have their website set up so if there’s a major event going on, the website would be shut down and replaced with an emergency page,” Dorn said. Twitter and Facebook accounts for the school “could say, ‘go to our website for more breaking information.’”
Look for local and regional alerts. “A lot of police departments and FEMA and the National Weather Service will send alerts,” he added. "It’s not just active shooters, but also severe weather and earthquakes and tornados” that constitute a threat.
“At the risk of having information overload, a parent and student should look for as many as those options as are available, and sign up for each of them,” Dorn said.