NANTICOKE — Noting that a “specific date and time” mentioned in an email threat had “passed without incident,” Luzerne County Community College announced Friday evening that it would resume operations at 8 a.m. today.
Multiple law enforcement agencies continue to investigate the threat, which officials deemed serious enough to shut down the main campus and all satellite operations Thursday and Friday, an unusual step that helps highlight the complexity of college campus security, several security officials said.
LCCC Director of Security Bill Barrett said Friday he could not provide any new information on the threat because of the investigation, but he did clarify that, while some officials had referred to it as a “cyber threat,” it was not an attack on college computers or electronic networks.
“That’s what people usually think of when they hear of a cyber threat,” Barrett said, adding that in this case it was a physical threat to the college made via email.
Barrett said he was “very pleased” with how well campus evacuation went once the threat was discovered.
“We immediately contacted the police and the college administration, including President (Thomas) Leary, and we activated our operations center and everybody convened there,” he said. Nanticoke Police had three officers on site within five minutes of being notified, he added.
After conferring, Leary decided on the evacuation and the school sent out alerts asking students to leave in an orderly fashion. The news went out via text message, email, Facebook and monitors located throughout the school, Barrett said.
“In the old days, before the technology was in place, we would have had to go from room to room,” Barrett said.
Security officers still went through all the buildings to make sure everyone left, but thanks to the ability to send out mass alerts to cell phones, “Most people were out before we started,” he added.
Once the buildings were cleared, alarm systems were armed. That, coupled with an extensive security camera system, “lets us see inside all the buildings, including those off campus,” which helped keep the college secure for the two days it was closed, Barrett said.
Such technology is the first and strongest weapon in security on college campuses, which by tradition and necessity tend to be considerably more open and accessible than elementary and high schools, said Wilkes University Public Safety Director Chris Jagoe said.
“You try to leverage as much technology as you have available to you,” said Jagoe, adding that he’s been in the business for 30 years, including at the University of Maryland. There, security officers had access to the usual options such as text messages and security cameras, but also had license plate readers to help spot suspicious vehicles.
The decision to shut down an entire campus is uncommon, Jagoe said, but response to any threat is made after assessment of many factors. In the case of an email threat, the first question may be whether the person sending the threat can be identified.
“It can be very hard,” Jagoe said. “It depends on the level of sophistication of the individual making it. If they’ve gone into places like a Starbucks, it gets hard to determine where the initial message came from. It can get scrubbed overseas, make its way through Russia and back to us. The person will be found, it’s just a question of whether it will be done quickly or take time.”
Jagoe cited email threats at the University of Maryland that did not require a major shutdown because “we were able to identify the person fairly quickly.”
Knowing who made the threat can change an assessment. If it’s a person with access to the campus and to the tools needed to carry out the threat, the risk is obviously higher, Jagoe said.
If the threat is to a specific building, an evacuation or lockdown may be in order, akin to what has become standard policy at public schools in the wake of the Columbine shootings. But Barrett and Jagoe both said colleges do not lend themselves easily to such measures.
“You have certain entry points and pinch points in smaller buildings, so it’s easier to do a traditional lockdown, but when your dealing with larger areas and facilities it gets more dicey,” Jagoe said. “Doors may be malfunctioning, people may have propped them open.”
LCCC’s main campus has 14 buildings plus the emergency response training center, Barrett said, as well as space rented in various building throughout the county for satellite operations. At the off-campus sites where buildings may have other tenants, only the LCCC sections were shut down.
Campus security has changed since the passage of the federal law now known as the Jeanne Clery Act, in memory of a student raped and murdered on the Lehigh University campus in Bethlehem.
Passed in 1990, the law has been amended several times and requires colleges to file annual federal reports and to have an emergency notification system in place to warn students of dangers.