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Time mandate on campus alerts proposed in congress

Just days before the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech University shootings, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., introduced a bill that would require universities to alert students of a threat no more than 30 minutes after it’s been confirmed.

“Many believe if the students had been notified earlier, they might not have gone to class,” McCarthy said Wednesday.

The law currently requires universities to notify students in a “timely manner.” But McCarthy said that standard is too subjective and could cost lives, like at Virginia Tech _ when the university waited nearly two hours last April 16 to e-mail students that a gunman had been on campus. Thirty-two people were killed.

McCarthy’s proposal also requires that universities annually publish and test emergency response procedures.

Colleges would have until 2009 to set up campuswide alert systems using whatever method they chose _ such as automated cell phone calls or text messages _ but the proposal doesn’t yet include funds for institutions to do so.

Gun violence hits home for McCarthy _ whose son was injured and her husband killed by a gunman while riding a Long Island Rail Road train in New York in 1993. The tragedy was the platform that propelled her to a seat in Congress.

On New York’s Long Island, Stony Brook University used its own emergency system in late February, when a cafeteria worker falsely reported a man with a gun.

The university alerted students 26 minutes after getting the report, a reasonable amount of time to respond to such a threat, but which might not be feasible at other times, said Robert Lenahan, university emergency management director.

“There may be some circumstances where you may need to take a little more time to verify the accuracy,” Lenahan said.

That’s why the American Council on Education opposes the “one-size-fits-all mandate,” said Terry W. Hartle, the council’s senior vice president for government and public affairs.

“Campus security officers want to convey information as timely, accurate and useful,” Hartle said. “If you choose one of those three over the others, you may not be providing the best information people need.”

But alerts within 30 minutes could save lives, said Joe Samaha, father of Virginia Tech victim Reema Samaha. “If we do not learn the lesson, we will have lost our students for nothing,” he said.

(c) 2008, Newsday. Visit Newsday online at http://www.newsday.com/ Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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