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SIUE exploring text-messaging method of warning campus of threats

In line on her college campus to donate blood, Angela Negron
was unsure which was more surprising: That the school’s police happened upon a
fellow student’s cryptic note allegedly threatening mayhem rivaling April’s
massacre at Virginia Tech, or that she had to learn of the threat from a
reporter not the school five days after it surfaced.

Either way, the 18-year-old nursing student at Southern
Illinois University in this St. Louis
suburb wasn’t overly put off by either.

“I feel safe here,” she said this week, a day
after 22-year-old student Olutosin Oduwole was charged with attempting to make
a terrorist threat in the note police say was found in his disabled car on
campus July 20.

Police say that note crawled on a sheet of paper that included
rap lyrics made no direct reference to targeting SIU’s campus, and that they
believed no attack was imminent. But Negron said a campus-wide notification
about the threat would have been appreciated.

Southern Illinois, however, has no
immediate, universal way of warning the campus when such danger is near or

The current notification system deals with getting the word
out by radio, television and the university’s automated telephone system and
staff voicemail when wintry weather forces classes there to be canceled,
spokesman Greg Conroy said. When severe storms are closing in, a campus
loudspeaker also tells folks through a recorded message to take cover.

Still, the Virginia Tech shootings that left 32 people and
the gunman dead were an awakening, Conroy said. Virginia Tech was criticized
for what many called its slow response in getting the word out about the
gunfire. The case prodded universities across the country to revisit how they
warn students and staff when trouble is near; at SIU, it was “motivation
to get our system beefed up,” Conroy said.

Within weeks, he said, the Edwardsville school empaneled a
committee to assess the issue. The answer: A system by which warnings by text
messages or voice mails will be hustled to cell phones of students and staff
who subscribe, all at university expense.

Conroy said the school hopes the system will be in place by
this year’s end if the school and a few other Illinois
ones banding together in the effort work out the details, including the cost.

So far, Conroy insists, the university has not yet needed to
use such a system even with the case of fraternity president and aspiring
rapper Oduwole, in whose car police say they found a note last week threatening
a “murderous rampage” similar to Virginia Tech.

The handwritten note, authorities say, demanded payment to a
PayPal account, threatening that “if this account doesn’t reach $50,000 in
the next 7 days then a murderous rampage similar to the VT shooting will occur
at another highly populated university. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!”

About a week earlier, a gun dealer had notified federal
authorities that Oduwole seemed overly eager to get weapons he had recently
ordered online, an investigator wrote in an affidavit filed in court. Federal
agents were investigating those concerns at the time of the arrest of Oduwole,
who the affidavit said was seen walking campus wearing a bullet-resistant vest
in May.

Conroy said Oduwole’s swift arrest July 20 shortly after the
note was found, and the fact that he’s been in custody since, diffused the need
for any urgent campus-wide warning. School employees were notified by e-mail
that day of Oduwole’s arrest, then again on Tuesday after the student was
charged, Conroy said.

“We felt there was no imminent threat,” a conclusion
shared by local and federal authorities, Conroy said.

Oduwole, who has pleaded not guilty, remained jailed
Thursday on $1.1 million bond on the threat-related count and unrelated
computer fraud and felony theft charges.

Even without the cell phone-based warning system, Southern
Illinois deserves kudos for its “rapid response” to the
situation, a higher education lawyer in Washington and former general counsel
for the American Council on Education submits.

Sheldon Steinbach said the Oduwole case amplifies how
multiple players need to be involved in preventing school violence.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he said.
“When it’s done right, it’s supposed to be a troika: the university, the
university community and law enforcement at all levels.”

Still, Conroy says, the new electronic alert system could be
a valuable tool.

– Associated Press

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