Taking safety seriously

Taking safety seriously

When a Purdue University teaching assistant walked into an engineering classroom and shot and killed a fellow TA last month, the campus went into lockdown.

But in some classrooms, professors simply kept on teaching, or seemed unaware of what the "shelter in place" order meant, according to students interviewed by local media. And the campus received calls from parents concerned for their children's safety.

In an email response, Purdue President Mitch Daniels said the "overwhelming majority of faculty acted in accordance with procedure. But that is little consolation to students whose experience was otherwise." The campus has sent out information to faculty reiterating safety procedures and will work to reinforce that message in weeks to come, Daniels said.

That scenario sent chills through campus officials at the University of Illinois, who are considering additional steps to ensure that UI faculty review safety procedures with students at the start of each semester — and know what to do in a real emergency.

UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise told faculty senators last week that some professors at Purdue "basically paid no attention" to the shooting reports, and some disparaged other faculty and students who were worried that the shooter might still be at large. The suspect, 23-year-old Cody Cousins, turned himself over to police almost immediately.

Wise had asked all faculty last August to review safety procedures with their students on the first day of class. The idea was that students, and sometimes faculty, are in a half-dozen different buildings every day, and this would make it easy to know emergency routes.

Professors were given a one-minute script to read and a sheet to attach to the course syllabus with general emergency response recommendations. The sheet included links to the UI Police emergency planning page, where they could find floor plans marked with building exits, storm-shelter locations and evacuation areas.

"We got very little buy-in," Wise told faculty at a Senate Executive Committee last week.

Faculty complained that students don't read the syllabus or didn't want to take time away from class to listen to the presentation, she said.

"Eyes rolled," she said.

After the Purdue shooting, UI Police Lt. Todd Short suggested that "it would be a good idea to revisit all of these topics, just to make sure that people are taking these types of threats seriously," he said last week. The campus is considering making the announcements mandatory.

"It's critically important," Wise said. "We don't want to wait until a Purdue situation happens. We are going to insist that this be done even more than before."

It's not just the right thing to do, the chancellor said.

Federal and state law requires employers to have emergency action plans for their buildings and review them with every employee, Short said.

The Illinois Department of Labor visited both Northern Illinois and Illinois State universities in 2011 and asked faculty and students if they were aware of what to do in an emergency, Wise said. "They got blank faces," she said.

Schools can be fined for violations, and Wise said she wouldn't be surprised to see inspectors visit the UI, the largest university in the state.

The requirement is a huge undertaking for the UI, which has 450 building spread across campus, Short said. Emergency plans have been completed for more than 250, including residence halls, private certified housing, classroom buildings, labs and other high-priority buildings, he said.

The plans are based on two principles: evacuation or shelter in place — essentially, "getting out or staying in," Short said. That applies whether the emergency is a shooting, fire, a hazardous materials leak, earthquake or tornado.

The decision of which one is the correct response has to be made by the person at the time, given the specific circumstances, he said. But the plan is designed to get people to rehearse both options mentally, so if something happens they can protect themselves, he said.

For example: If a shooter is in your building, the decision will be to evacuate if at all possible, he said. If a shooter is across campus, it's advisable to stay in place rather than go out in the open, he said. But if you're not sure where the shooter is, or you feel like you can't leave a room safely, "sheltering in place may be the best choice," he said.

"You never know when the tornado is going to strike; you never know when the New Madrid is going to go off," he said. "I want to make sure that if something happens on our campus, wherever it may occur, people know evacuation and shelter-in-place procedures that are applicable to every conceivable emergency on campus."

The template for the building emergency action plans is available at police.illinois.edu.

To raise awareness, Short plans to meet with the Council of Deans and the campus senate in coming days. The campus is also developing a power-point training program for its emergency planning Web page, with tabs for different kinds of emergencies.

A communication class taught by Assistant Professor Brian Quick is also working with Short to put together a training video that could be used in classrooms at the start of each semester.

"This is an important issue. Anybody who follows the news realizes that sometimes bad things can happen in public places. Having a course of action in mind is always a good idea, in my opinion," Quick said.

Last fall was the first time professors were asked to review the safety material with their classes. Some professors said last week they didn't remember getting the email.

Princess Imoukhuede, assistant professor of bioengineering, went over the script with her students last fall and again at the start of the second semester in January. It only took a few minutes, she said. Her department's safety officers also reviewed the safety plans more extensively with her lab group.

"It's something we all need to know," she said.

Imoukhuede, who came to the UI from Johns Hopkins, worked in a lab across the street from the hospital there when a physician was shot. The campus was locked down quickly, and "we all knew what we needed to do."

Imoukhuede said UI students and faculty are more sensitized to the issue after receiving several emergency "Illini alerts" in recent months — one when a UI student was stabbed in her off-campus apartment and another when fire destroyed a building near the Beckman Institute.

"I think what becomes scary is if you're actually in that situation, how do you make those decisions? It's good that the chancellor's office is helping to educate us," she said. "In elementary school, you had those fire drills for a reason. You need to have some time to think about how you're going to protect yourself."

Mitch Dickey, chairman of the campus affairs committee for the Illinois Student Senate, said he hasn't heard anything about building safety plans in any of his classes and was glad to hear the campus is spreading the word. He said he'd know to go to the basement during a tornado or evacuate for a fire or a bomb threat, but he's not sure how he'd react to a shooting. An emergency plan "definitely would be useful," he said.

Sticking with the script

Here's what UI professors were asked to read to their classes at the start of the semester:

In an emergency in this building, we'll have two choices: get out or find a safe place to stay inside.

First, take a few minutes this week and learn the different ways to leave this building. If there's ever a fire alarm or something like that, you'll know how to get out, and you'll be able to help others get out too.

Second, if there's severe weather and leaving isn't a good option, Public Safety recommends that you go to a low level in the middle of the building, away from windows.

If there's a security threat, we'll find a safe place and lock the door or block it and be as quiet as possible, unless we're able to safely signal for help.

Finally, if you sign up for emergency text messages, at emergency.illinois.edu, you'll receive information from the police and administration during these types of situations.

If you have any questions, go to police.illinois.edu, or call 217-333-1216.