Virginia Tech Shootings Sparked Movement on Campus Safety

The anniversary of the shootings that took place at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg April 16, 2007--which awakened other institutions to the need for bolstering their attention to campus safety--was remembered on campus with a variety of activities this year. A steering committee of 18 planned a full schedule for Virginia Tech, starting with the midnight lighting of a ceremonial candle at a permanent memorial, which would be guarded by members of the Corps of Cadets for 24 hours. Other events included a "run in remembrance" with commemorative t-shirts, a placement of wreaths, and a digital exhibit of photographic images of "hope and recovery." Classes were canceled for the day.

The shootings, which left 32 people dead and 17 wounded before shooter Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed himself, led to some tightening of gun laws in Virginia, as well as a state review panel of the incident itself. That panel concluded that administrators at the university didn't take action that might have reduced the number of casualties. Specifically, they failed to issue an all-campus notification about two earlier killings by the gunman until almost two hours had elapsed. "University practice may have conflicted with written policies," the panel stated in its summary.

In response to the events and the panel's recommendations, Virginia Tech took multiple steps. A major one, implementation of an alerting system, included evaluation criteria that still characterize buying checklists for schools today:

  • Multi-modal communications (text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, Web posting, and voice communication to cell or land line phones);
  • Flexibility in registering or subscribing users;
  • Distributed data centers to enable the sending of messages even if the vendor's facility is impacted by the emergency event; and
  • Dispersed messaging to prevent saturation of communications.

Also, the university recognized the need to better share health and education information campus-wide in order to develop a cohesive plan of intervention in the lives of students at risk. Cho, a student at Virginia Tech, had spent a lifetime exhibiting signs of mental health problems. But, as the report said, campus representatives explained their failures to communicate with one another or with Cho's parents by noting their belief that "such communications are prohibited by the federal laws governing the privacy of health and education records. In reality, federal laws and their state counterparts afford ample leeway to share information."

According to student newspaper Collegiate Times, a recently published book, No Right to Remain Silent, by Virginia Tech professor Lucinda Roy, who had tutored Cho, describes Roy's frustration in trying to get help for Cho. "Among other complaints, Roy discusses staffing inadequacies at Cook Counseling Center and road blocks she encountered while trying to get Cho help," wrote reporter Gordon Block.

After the shootings, Block reported, the institution increased the size of its counseling staff to 16, up from 10. It also hired a psychiatric nurse and transitioned a part-time university psychiatrist to full time.

Nor did Virginia Tech respond alone to the shootings. As shown weekly in news coverage on CampusTechnology.com and elsewhere, administrators at other colleges and universities nationwide have taken up the siren call of campus safety. Thousands of campuses directed attention and budget to bolstering their emergency notification systems, creating almost overnight a mini-industry in alerting services offering the same functionality outlined by the Virginia Tech buying recommendations.

Also, other services came to the forefront, intended to aide in the identification of at-risk students (though these typically are positioned as enrollment retention tools rather than mental health indicators).

But even as second anniversary memorial activities took place on a campus in Blacksburg, a university in another city on the same day was dealing with threats of its own--and demonstrating how well some institutions have learned their lessons. Campus police at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX were getting help from other public safety agencies to investigate threatening notes found off-campus stating, "4-16-09 10 people will be killed and shot at the grove."

In this case, communicating with the campus community wasn't an afterthought. Every page on the university's Web site included a bright yellow banner splashed across the top with a link to a page detailing up-to-the-hour events surrounding the potential threat. Besides the Web site notifications, other safety measures on campus at the ready include a siren system, e-mail alerts, and a mobile alert system.

The university didn't cancel classes; however, it did increase the number of police present on campus and it offered a reward leading to the identification of the person or people who had written the notes.

But even with heightened student awareness and attention paid to campus safety, there are no guarantees. As the campus safety page at Stephen F. Austin State points out, in the event that an armed person shows up in class or in an office, other than using common sense, getting word out to other staff, hiding, or fleeing, "There is no one procedure the authorities can recommend in this situation."

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