Blasts at Boston Marathon Prompt Colleges Across the U.S. to Consider Increased Security

April 17, 2013

Owen Yardley was sitting in a room full of security officials on Monday when he and a colleague received nearly simultaneous alerts on their cellphones notifying them of the explosions at the Boston Marathon.

Mr. Yardley, chief of police at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, was attending a seminar for threat-assessment leaders, where the bomb blasts became an immediate topic of conversation.

Since then, as updates trickled out of Boston—including news late Tuesday that one of those killed in the explosions was a Boston University student—Chief Yardley and colleagues around the country have discussed plans to step up security at commencements and other large-scale events they help oversee.

Meanwhile, college presidents and other campus leaders responsible for ensuring safety at events have notified faculty members, students, and others to remain vigilant as law-enforcement authorities continued to search for clues about who may have been responsible for the deadly attacks.

"This is a stark reminder that we must be vigilant in our everyday lives," William L. Jenkins, interim president of the Louisiana State University system, wrote in an e-mail to the LSU community. "We live in a beautiful world, but there is an evil element that requires us to have a keen awareness of our surroundings."

At the University of Arizona, the athletics department's executive committee, which includes members of the operations staff, met to discuss important points to take away from the tragedy, including the need for campus police officials to work closely with local, state, and federal authorities to secure facilities for events.

"Anytime there's a public tragedy like this, you're always going to pay attention to it," says Greg Byrne, Arizona's director of athletics. "As things continue to unfold, we'll be keeping a close watch."

Late Tuesday, authorities in Boston released details about the deadly explosives, which apparently were made out of pressure cookers that were filled with metal shards, nails, and ball bearings—the pieces of which reportedly injured more than 170 people.

"We've removed BBs and we've removed nails from kids," David Mooney, director of the trauma center at Boston Children's Hospital, told reporters. "One of the sickest things for me was just to see nails sticking out of a little girl's body."

Concern About Commencements

In Omaha, where Chief Yardley, of the University of Nebraska, and more than 160 security leaders from colleges and other jurisdictions were gathered for a meeting of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, officials discussed ways to protect the facilities they are responsible for, and extra precautions they should take for events coming up soon.

One main topic of discussion: commencements, which will take center stage on campuses throughout the country in coming weeks.

Although Mr. Yardley said he and other security officials would probably wait for more information about the Boston blasts before making big changes in plans for their own events, some of his colleagues were already discussing ways to increase security for commencements.

Those efforts could include blocking off larger areas before ceremonies, adding surveillance systems or more professionals to look out for suspicious activity (such as breaches of security leading up to events), and monitoring for people who are out of place or who might be motivated to do harm.

"You don't want to make your campus paranoid, but people need to be aware of their surroundings and report unusual activity to the police," Mr. Yardley said. "Security isn't something that happens a week or two in advance of an event; it's got to happen year-round."

When Mr. Yardley first heard about the attacks on Monday, he was listening to a session focused on how to build threat-assessment teams. At a dinner on Tuesday night, he and his colleagues were still discussing ideas for how to improve those efforts, including making sure that campuses are working closely with law-enforcement personnel from other jurisdictions, and continuing to improve communication systems.

In two weeks, he will get his first tests, as his campus will hold commencement ceremonies and then serve as the starting and finishing point for a citywide marathon. In the meantime, he plans to keep talking with colleagues around the country to see what changes they are making, and stay in close contact with other police departments.

"We're really taking an all-hazard approach," he says. "We prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Hopefully, everything goes off well."