Pitt: graduation day after tough spring
People wait along South Bellefield Avenue after being evacuated March 14 from the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh because of a bomb threat.
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As always, there will be pomp and circumstance today at the University of Pittsburgh commencement, but new to this year's ceremony will be pat downs, bag searches and, perhaps, some angst.
A series of bomb threats that disrupted the spring semester for more than a month appears to have ended April 21, but because of them, long-standing tradition will merge with first-time security measures for the commencement exercises. Graduates, guests and staff attending the 1 p.m. ceremony at the Petersen Events Center in Oakland will be subjected to bag searches, frisking and visual checks similar to those at Heinz Field for Pittsburgh Steelers games.
Of course, bomb threats at institutions didn't begin and end at Pitt. That's why other institutions will be looking at the Pitt experience, and how the university responded, in order to fine-tune their own response protocols and procedures for dealing with such threats, campus security experts say.
What made the 46 bomb threats directed at 143 Pitt buildings since Feb. 13 both frustrating and fear inducing wasn't just the unrelenting day and night evacuations of buildings, including dormitories, but the use of technology by the culprit or culprits to thwart capture. Other than the first half-dozen or so threats, which were scrawled in women's and men's restrooms, most were emailed to the media using an anonymous remailer that requires little technical knowledge to send but makes it virtually impossible to trace, according to cybersecurity specialists.
The incidents stopped only when the university rescinded a $50,000 reward for tips leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person or people responsible. A group calling itself "The Threateners" took responsibility for the emailed threats and reiterated in an email to The Pitt News an earlier demand that Pitt withdraw the reward.
Until it appeared there was a resolution to the situation, Pitt followed standard protocol for bomb threats: mass notification, evacuation and search for explosives. Though no explosives were ever found, and it seemed likely the precautions taken weren't needed because there were no bombs, Pitt followed the usual protocol to err on the side of caution.
But the university also began to put new procedures in place during the threats, including reducing the number of open entrances to buildings and doing security checks on people entering.
For finals week, which came just after the group claiming responsibility for the threats signaled it would end them, the university announced a new protocol, described in a letter dated April 22 from university provost and senior vice chancellor Patricia E. Beeson to students, faculty and staff.
Starting April 22, she stated, the five buildings being used for final exams would be swept for explosives prior to the beginning of each exam day and increased security would be maintained during and between exams. Only people with valid Pitt ID cards would be allowed to enter the exam buildings and all bags would be checked thoroughly, the letter stated.
Those buildings would be evacuated and ENS alerts sent only if law enforcement officers determined there was an imminent threat, according to Ms. Beeson.
Residence halls, she stated, would be swept for explosives every evening starting Sunday and access would continue to be limited to individuals with a valid Pitt ID.
This was a change from the previously stated policy that evacuation would be automatic any time a threat was received.
The unusual aspects of Pitt's stress-filled spring make it incumbent upon other institutions to have plans in place in case they face a similar situation, experts agree. Pitt's experience showed, perhaps for the first time, that a single person or group armed only with a computer can cause major disruptions by forcing the university to adhere to a disruptive and time-consuming protocol of alert, evacuation and search. The alternative of doing nothing is clearly too risky. But the lengthy and large-scale disruptions experienced by Pitt will likely mean that some institutions consider refining their security plans and protocols.
Chris Blake, associate director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators based in Hartford, Conn., said the organization's 1,200 institutional members -- campus police and security departments -- are "paying attention to how Pitt dealt with it."
"One thing to keep in mind is the Pitt situation -- bomb threats for weeks and for multiple buildings -- is extraordinary," Mr. Blake said. "I've never seen anything on a sustained level like that.
"It's so disruptive to the operations because you have to take every one of them seriously no matter how many you've had. It's a shame."
"Institutions would be remiss if they didn't pay attention to this," said Steven J. Healy of the education security consulting firm Margolis Healy in Richmond, Vt. "There is always a fear of a copycat, particularly at this time of year during reading periods and finals.
While emergency response to a bomb threat at an institution is fairly standard -- usually mass notification, evacuation and search for explosives -- there are some differences, Mr. Healy said.
"There are typical response protocols, but each response is slightly nuanced depending upon what is contained in the threat -- a specific building, a specific area, why they are doing this, the expected time of detonation, all contribute to the credibility or the unbelievability of the threat. Each response is a little different."
C.G. Neil McLaughlin Jr., president of the Northeast Colleges and Universities Security Association, said all campus law enforcement organizations already have in place procedures, many recommended by the FBI, for dealing with threats. But, he said, the association's 200 institutional members, ranging from Harvard to the University of Connecticut to some Pitt branch campuses, are always looking to improve their response to emergency situations.
"Emergency response is something we address in workshops and seminars, usually as part of our annual conference," said Chief Laughlin, who heads the police department at Western Connecticut State University.
He said he expected Pitt would do an internal review of what occurred to determine what it did right in response and where there may be areas for improvement. Sharing that information with other institutions would help them in their planning for such an incident, Chief Laughlin said. However, Pitt spokesman Robert Hill said the university had no plans to share any internal information about the bomb threat incidents and its response.
Regardless, Mr. Healy said what happened at Pitt should be more than enough motivation for institutions to take note and take a look at their planning.
"Every institution should be looking at their own policies, procedures and protocols," he said. "Most of them meet on a regular basis and if it was my meeting, one of my top agenda items would be looking at what's happening at Pitt and asking 'How do we stack up?' "
First Published April 29, 2012 12:00 am