(USA TODAY) - At 10 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2013, students' cellphones at South Carolina State University buzzed or beeped with this text message:
"Initiation of Lockdown: The following alert is an active shooter mock drill being conducted by SC State Police. This is only a drill."
There was no threat to the campus that day, but Mernard Clarkson, the interim chief of police, wanted to test the university's mass notification system and response to an active shooter situation.
"Anytime you can train on something and have pre-information on what to do, the better the outcome will be," Clarkson said. "Folks knowing what to do will reduce the likelihood of more people being injured in this type of incident."
Clarkson had no idea that less than two months after the drill, the university would be sending out a similar text message for real. Brandon Robinson, 20, was shot and killed by a fellow student on Jan. 24, sending the campus of 3,200 students into lockdown.
A growing number of universities are implementing active shooter drills to help their students prepare for the possibility.
The Jeanne Clery Act, named after a 19-year-old woman who was raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm room in 1986, requires campuses to test their emergency response plan annually. It's up to the school to decide what type of drill is most beneficial - active shooter, fire, chemical, or weather, according to Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus.
"I can say since 2008, active shooter drills have become more common," Kiss said.
On April 16, 2007, 33 people - including the shooter - were killed on the Virginia Tech campus, spurring national conversation about campus security.
There have been at least five shootings at universities this year: Jan. 20 at Widener University in Pennsylvania, Jan. 21 at Purdue University in Indiana, Jan. 24 at South Carolina State, Jan. 28 at Tennessee State University, and Jan. 30 at Eastern Florida State College.
Kevin Foust, interim chief of police and director of security of the Virginia Tech police department, declined to comment on the university's current preparations, but several other schools have plans well in place.
"This active shooter problem has been on everybody's mind and things haven't gotten any better," said David Tedjeske, director of public safety at Villanova University. "We wanted to orient the entire university community to the idea of a lockdown."
One day last November, Villanova's 10,000-member student body and staff were instructed not to leave the buildings, and classes continued in lecture halls. As teachers clicked through PowerPoints and students scrawled down notes, the buildings on campus were locked down.
In addition to giving safety personnel practice at quickly securing the buildings and providing a test for the university's alert system, the drill gave students and staff something to think about, Tedjeske said.
"It promoted awareness of what the procedures would be, which spawned conversation and made people contemplate what actions they would take in the event of an emergency," he said.
At Simpson College, in Indianola, Iowa, an active shooter drill in 2012 involved the police department, the fire department, college security, and the school's approximately 2,000 students, who were instructed to act as either victims or survivors.
Police officers practiced neutralizing the "shooter" inside an academic building on campus, and rescue personnel tended to student "survivors" who were dealing with an array of injuries.
"You can really never do enough," said Chris Frerichs, director of security. "If it's more realistic, it gives you a better sense of, if it does happen, you have more experience and know what to do."
This year, all five of the Maysville Community and Technical College campuses in Kentucky are holding active shooter drills involving the entire school community, said Bruce Florence, the Licking Valley Campus branch campus director, said. In January 2013, three people were shot and killed in a parking garage at Hazard Community and Technical College - about two hours away from MCTC.
Larger universities said it would be difficult to do such elaborate active shooter drills on campuses that are more like small cities than schools.
Western Michigan University, which has more than 25,000 students, had an active shooter drill a few years ago, but the school doesn't do them on a regular basis like fire and tornado drills, said Cheryl Roland, executive director of university relations. They do, however, have more than 100 workshops a year on the active-shooter situation, Roland said.
In Michigan, K-12 schools are required to have five fire drills, two tornado drills, and three lockdown drills yearly. At the university level, however, only two tornado drills and eight fire drills are mandated.
There have been nine on-campus, fire-related deaths from January 2000 to March 2014 according to the U.S. Fire Administration. There have been 80 on-campus, gun-related deaths during that same time period.
Rick Crepas, president of Emergency School Safety Systems in Kalamazoo, Mich., said colleges should be doing more.
"They have the responsibility toward students and faculty to ensure the safety of the campus," Crepas said. "Just because things are difficult doesn't mean they're not worth doing."
At Drake University in Iowa, Director of Campus Security Services Scott Law said that drills specifically for active shooters aren't necessarily needed as long as the alert system is properly tested.
"Having an actual active shooter on campus is a very dynamic situation. The actual event is dependent on our ability to communicate to students what's going on and we practice our Bulldog System numerous times a year," Law said. "That communication will be essential if we have an active shooter situation on our grounds."