At colleges around the country this summer, one topic has vaulted to the top of the agenda at freshman orientation: campus safety.
The nation's first incoming freshmen since last spring's shootings at Virginia Tech are heading to class soon, and colleges have been fielding more questions from parents and students about security and mental health issues.
Some, like Binghamton University in New York, have added or augmented some orientation sessions, expanding time devoted entirely to campus safety. Others, such as Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania, are explaining new mass text-message systems put in place to help reach students and parents quickly in an emergency, be it a situation like the Virginia Tech shooting spree or a scenario such as a fire or chemical spill.
Colleges say they don't want to scare parents but want to convey they take security seriously.
Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas used to refer students and parents to the school's emergency response plan. This year, the campus police chief briefed orientation leaders to prepare them for questions, and spoke directly to parents as well.
Campus safety has always been on the agenda, said Hollie Smith, the university's orientation coordinator, "but I'm sure people are really listening now."
Small colleges often have orientation just before the academic year begins, in August or September. Larger schools tend to have students and parents visit in shifts over the course of the summer.
At Binghamton, broader issues such as dorm locks have been raised at orientation sessions, but the major topic in talks with parents was, "How do we communicate?" said Kenneth Holmes, assistant vice president for student life.
New emergency procedures there include a campus bell tone that can be sounded to signal emergencies. There's also new technology for sending text messages en masse, and for flashing messages to students over campus computer or cable television networks.
Binghamton's efforts impressed Seth Bykofsky, of West Hempstead on Long Island. He had one daughter graduate from Binghamton this year, and then attended orientation for another who starts there this month.
"You want to know that they're aware of the problems and the situation, that they're keeping with whatever the latest modes and methods are in security and information," he said. "One of the big problems with Virginia Tech was a lack of communication on many levels, and at many different times before the incident occurred."
Hope College in Michigan says communication is also a big topic, but it's also emphasizing the responsibility of students to communicate with each other and with authorities about potential dangers. Campus safety will figure into new vignettes students will perform at orientation later this month, and into the college president's address to parents.
Security has always been on the orientation agenda and a top priority, said Richard Frost, Hope's dean of students. "However, because of the anxieties of Virginia Tech and Eastern Michigan," where the university president recently lost his job following a high-profile slaying that was covered up, "we need to be clearer about that to parents," Frost said.
At Delaware Valley College, near Philadelphia, director of public safety and security Chris Daley has been giving visiting parents details about a new communications system that sends emergency information to students who have registered their cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
The parents' interest was "extremely heightened," said Daley, who will explain the system to new students later this month. "I spoke to 700 parents, and they were like, 'Our child will sign up for this. We'll make sure it happens.' You pitch it to mom and dad, who's paying the bill."
But other schools, including the University of Florida and Georgia Tech, reported that that parents turned out not to be as inquisitive as they expected.
"It's not that I don't think parents are concerned about this," said John Stein, dean of students at Georgia Tech. "I just think either they have reached a point where they're thinking a little bit differently about it, or they think colleges basically have things in place."
At Virginia Tech, most of the more than 5,000 incoming students have finished orientation, which took place over several sessions on campus last month. Each group was welcomed and observed a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings last April. After that, spokesman Chris Clough said security was discussed in much the same way as in past years, covered in general group discussions and in breakout campus tours for students with orientation leaders, but not dwelled on excessively.
Clough said there was not any noticeably higher level of interest by students and parents in security than in past years.
"They're obviously aware," of the events of last April, Clough said. But, he said, "There really was a fresh start and a lot of enthusiasm shown by students and families."