Viewpoint

Can We Protect the Next Virginia Tech?

This morning I woke up (on the West Coast) to news of yet another horrific report of a school or campus massacre—one of “monumental” proportions at Virginia Tech, according to the school’s clearly agonized president, Charles Steger. Indeed, the gunning down of at least 33 people (mostly students), and the wounding of about 22 others, is being marked as the deadliest campus shooting in US history.

As a parent and human being, the shock and grief I feel for the families of those killed and injured cannot be understated, but as the editor of the country’s only monthly print and online franchise dedicated solely to the coverage of technology usage on US campuses, I have to admit I felt ripped apart when Amie Steele, the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper admitted this morning that the normally peaceful campus did not physically secure dorms and campus buildings until the evening hours. This, even though the campus had been shut down on the first day of classes this year because of a shooting incident involving an escaped parolee, and had since endured two bomb threats—one only about a week prior to this morning’s devastation.

Certainly I understand as well as anyone that there is yet no technology in broad usage on campuses today that can prevent absolutely everyone with dark motives from finding a way onto a campus or into a building if that is his or her determination. And developers of products for the physical protection of US college and university campuses are still struggling with the fact that even the snazziest technologies are hard-pressed to outwit the human tendency to hold open a door for another, or to sneak “just one more” person through a gate or entryway.

But the vendor communities and many, many campuses are trying and they’re trying hard: biometrics, iris-scan devices, even the teaming of multiple security measures (surveillance, access cards, and the use of security personnel, for example) are being deployed in the hopes that one—if not all—of the separate measures may cull out that one individual with unfathomable evil in his or her heart.

Still, as fingers may point to Virginia Tech administrators, asking, “How could they not have taken seriously their recent campus threats—and the threats that seem to pervade life in general, these days?” I have to ask: How prepared are you, where you live and work? And, how prepared am I, here at my desk, in the edifice in which I work and assume that all is pretty much status quo?

There are money issues, of course; and there are issues of naiveté to be dealt with. But more than anything, there are issues of extent and standards: How much security is enough? How much is too much? What amount of protection for their children can parents expect, when they send their progeny off to an institution of higher learning (and spend their life savings paying for that privilege)?

We need to look at these questions, and we need to look at them quickly. At this point in time—and even as a technology editor who should believe that technology can handle all ills—I know that that concept needs human acceptance and adoption behind it, to make it work. And more than anything, it needs swift action, and swift decision-making. It may be folly to think that we can secure a nation against threats from the outside world, but can we at least adopt minimum standards—say, the mandate that campus buildings and dorms must have available security measures in place night and day—to protect our children?


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