UNC discusses safety at policy meeting

CHAPEL HILL – University of North Carolina officials began working on ways to improve campus security weeks before Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech and then himself on April 16.

Originally, UNC officials were responding to incidents at UNC-Greensboro, where a student was shot in a dorm, and at East Carolina, and Winston-Salem State University. Officials were looking at what was needed to improve campus safety. Those meetings involved President Erskine Bowles, chancellors, and campus police chiefs across the system.

Now, in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, those discussions now include the Board of Governors (BOG).

The Board of Governors is launching a task force to assess the campus safety climate. The task force, which will be led by BOG member Brent Barringer, was discussed during policy discussions Thursday, just as Virginia officials held their first meeting to review issues surrounding the Virginia Tech shooting, including the response of school officials.

UNC’s task force will complement a task force that was announced by State Attorney General Roy Cooper days after the shooting. Brad Wilson, a member of the Board of Governors and a former chair of the BOG, will lead that task force. Other members force have not been announced yet.

This is the second time in nearly three years that UNC has organized a task force to examine campus safety. In 2004, a task force was created to address admission issues surrounding two shooting deaths at UNC-Wilmington. Those issues centered primarily on whether criminal background checks were needed before accepting students.

This task force will be more comprehensive, addressing all issues surrounding campus safety, UNC officials said.

“We have to really think through each of these issues—that way, we are not just reacting,” Bowles said.

UNC Vice President and General Counsel Leslie Winner told the BOG members that security issues can be separated into day-to-day safety issues and decreasing the risk of future tragedies.

Reducing future threats includes the problem of identifying who is actually a threat to the campus community, especially given access to dorm rooms and other facilities. Another issue surrounds the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), both of which regulate what information can be released about student medical and education records.

Under current HIPPA and FERPA laws, a university official cannot discuss medical and education issues with a student’s parents without permission unless there is an immediate threat, Winner said. BOG members responded by saying that Congress may be willing to look at changes to HIPPA and FERPA in response to the Virginia Tech tragedy.

But Congress should be careful with the changes, Winner advised. “A danger is making communication so easy that they won’t seek counseling or speak to a counselor,” Winner said.

No specific policy changes were mentioned during the discussion. Bowles said good procedures currently exist on the campuses, but he mentioned that turnover of campus police officers is a concern.

Winner said that looking at all the issues involved would be a serious undertaking for the system.

“We’re never going to guarantee safety,” Winner said. “We’re never going to have a zero percent crime rate.”