It was after 1 a.m. on a Sunday when college freshman Amanda Phillips arrived at the train station. She was nervous about walking alone in the dark to her dorm at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

So Phillips activated a GPS tracking device on her school-issued cell phone that would instantly alert campus police to her whereabouts if she didn’t turn it off in 20 minutes. After a five-minute walk, she safely reached her dorm room, locked the door behind her, and turned off the timer.

“I think this is a great idea. It makes me feel a lot safer. And it’s not even that expensive,” said Phillips, an 18-year-old from Delaware.

Had she not turned the device off, an alarm would have sounded at the campus police station, and a computer screen would have displayed a dot with her location, along with her photo and other personal details.

Montclair is one of the first schools in the United States to offer students a GPS tracking service—which, along with other security technology, is being adopted on more and more campuses in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre last spring.

Students can use the timer or, in an emergency, activate the GPS technology to alert police instantly.

“Maybe they’re hiding and are hurt. Maybe they wouldn’t want to talk, because they’re hiding behind a desk and the gunman’s in the room. They’d have a better chance of being located,” said campus police Sgt. Paul Giardino.

So far, not many students are using the feature. The university, which has 13,000 undergraduates, said the timers get turned on only about five to 10 times a week.

In the little more than a year that the system has been fully operational, the alarms have gone off only about once per month, and it was a false alarm every time, usually because someone forgot to turn off a timer.

Giardino said the false alarms aren’t nuisances—they are training opportunities for the 32-member police force. “I can get my guys to get out and learn how to handle these,” he said of the alarms.

Two years ago, well before the Virginia Tech shootings, Montclair State made the cell phones mandatory for all first-year students living in dorms at the largely commuter school in suburban New York City. Now, all new full-time undergraduates—whether they live on campus or off—are required to buy them. About 6,000 students have them now.

Karen Pennington, vice president for campus life, said she and others on campus wanted to use the phones for instruction—letting professors take instant polls in class, for instance—and for safety as well.

Although students praise the safety features, some grumble that the phones are mandatory and that they must be bought through the school for $210 per semester, on top of tuition and fees totaling more than $7,600 a year.

The phones come with free, unlimited text messaging, the capability to read campus eMail, free calls after 7 p.m., and free calls to other Sprint phones—but only 50 minutes per month of anytime talking. Students must pay extra to add minutes. And though students pay by the semester, the phones work year-round.

The university contracted with the New York-based company Rave Wireless for the safety technology and Sprint for the cell-phone service. Montclair State said it is not making money on the deal. It said the total cost is around $2 million per year—almost exactly what the school collects from students to fund it.

Sprint added cell towers so that virtually every inch of the campus gets service.

Raju Rishi, co-founder of Rave, said Montclair State was the first to use the safety feature, called Rave Guardian. A half-dozen other schools, including nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University and the University of North Carolina, now use similar systems, Rishi said.

Rishi said campus police are not monitoring the movements of students who don’t turn on the GPS feature. “There’s no Big Brother,” Rishi said. “You need a subpoena to locate somebody against [her or his] will.”

Security on Campus, a King of Prussia, Pa.-based advocacy group, gave Montclair State an award for the innovation. The group’s vice president, Catherine Bath, said the technology will probably become more widespread.

“When I’m out walking my dog at night, I would love to have one of these,” she said.

Links:

Montclair State University

Rave Wireless

Security on Campus