Virginia Tech: A decade later

Higher ed strives to keep colleges safe

On April 16, 2007, a senior at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks, two hours apart, in a residence hall and then an academic building. It had been 41 years since a University of Texas at Austin student killed 17 people and wounded 31 from atop a campus tower.

The Virginia Tech massacre replaced that 1966 event as the deadliest shooting on a U.S. college campus.

The tragedy also triggered scrutiny of the roles and responsibility of campus officials, as well as renewed debate on issues such as gun violence, mental health and privacy laws.

Internal and state reviews of the Virginia Tech shooting produced 287 recommendations, the vast majority of which have been implemented, says Mark Owczarski, assistant vice president for news and information at the university.

And many of those recommendations have since been updated—to keep up with the explosion of Twitter as a method of communication during an emergency, for example.

A decade and well over 100 school shootings since the tragedy, all of those working in higher ed remember clearly that difficult day and the long period of sadness that followed.

In addition to thinking of the lives cut short, the higher ed community has considered and implemented changes in policy and practice recommended after the full Virginia Tech investigation.

From proactive efforts to emergency response planning, the goal is the same at Virginia Tech and colleges and universities across the country: keeping students, faculty and staff safe.

—Melissa Ezarik, managing editor, UB

Evolution of campus security

New and enhanced emergency protocols, training and equipment for colleges in the past 10 years

Following the Virginia Tech tragedy, Congress amended the federal Clery Act in 2008 by requiring higher ed institutions to issue emergency notifications during active shooter incidents. Institutions now must also develop overall emergency protocols, and make them public.

Because of those mandates and higher ed officials’ renewed commitment to safety, campus security has advanced dramatically over the past decade, with a particular emphasis on improving campus teamwork, communication, weaponry, technology and training.

It takes a village

In the wake of Virginia Tech, investigators learned that various campus departments—including police, residence life and faculty—had individually seen potential signs that something might be amiss with the shooter.

Most institutions now employ a campuswide security approach, featuring multidisciplinary threat assessment teams.

Representatives from law enforcement, student affairs, human resources, counseling services and residence life work together, sharing information regarding students, faculty, staff or visitors who may be prone to violence. Preventative action is taken on threats that appear credible.

Institutions also cultivate active relationships with local law enforcement, often working hand-in-hand with emergency responders in training exercises for mass-casualty incidents. Active shooter scenarios, shelter-in-place plans and staged evacuations are routine.

Many schools also craft a detailed memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement specifying how emergencies will be handled.

“When an event happens, things are occurring way too rapidly and there’s too much at stake to get caught up in a bureaucratic ‘Who’s on first?’ routine,” says Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Weapons and social media

Campus police departments have seen dramatic upgrades in weaponry and protective equipment over the past decade. Semiautomatic rifles and ballistic vests are now standard issue at many institutions. Some campus security forces even own armored vehicles and grenade launchers.

Technology has dramatically advanced as colleges are among the most wired communities in the nation. In addition to myriad emergency notification system channels—including texts, email alerts, phone messages and digital signage—institutions must get information out on social media.

“Email is passÁ© for our students now,” says Bill Lafferty, executive director of campus safety at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

“Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, smartphones—that’s where it’s at, and institutions need to be able to connect with students using a variety of different mechanisms in an emergency notification process.”

Consequently, technology management skills are critical. With the saturation of social media and the viral nature of news, “It’s easier to frighten people now with an anonymous threat than it was 10, 15 years ago,” says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety organization.

In addition to monitoring social media for threats, university administrators need plans for staying ahead of social media when an incident occurs.

Institutions have to check facts, craft a message and then release it on multiple platforms in a professional manner—all while an event unfolds—to combat unverified information from other sources.

Vigilance is also necessary to ensure an institution’s own technology is not used against it.

“We’re now getting instances of students hacking into security camera systems with their phones, grabbing footage and putting it out on the web,” says Dorn.

Such access via the internet of things—the network of internet-connected devices—can be used to plan an attack. For example, many proximity card systems are not encrypted, so a hacker could shut out all cards or create their own to gain access to a restricted area.

Preparation considerations

As shootings continue to transpire on campuses, being prepared is vital. Self-defense programs such as “Run, Hide, Fight” exist on nearly every campus to teach students and staff how to protect themselves during an incident.

More sophisticated safety equipment also requires extensive training and time commitment.

“It can’t be, ‘Oh, let’s go out next week and get a bunch of semiautomatic rifles and put them in the [security] cars,’” says Riseling. Specialty items need to be implemented systematically, bolstered by a full schedule of training—including philosophy of response, usage and certification—before equipment is deployed.

The same kind of thorough training also extends to the work of campus threat assessment teams.

“Threat assessment looks different to human resources than it does to the security department or the dean of students or residence life,” says Riseling. Team members need to be trained individually and as a team so that everyone can work together seamlessly when an incident occurs.

Although no one can put a price on human life, institutions have to balance cost effectiveness when it comes to security. Active shooter deaths are still rare compared to traditional homicides, suicides and accidents.

“Even if an active shooter training proves to be very reliable and works every time, there’s still a question how much life it is going to save,” says Dorn. Adjunct faculty and part-time staff also require training, which multiplies the costs for universities.

To help rein that in, Dorn says institutions can license a suite of security web courses rather than bring in a professional (such as himself) who charges $5,000 plus travel expenses for a single training. Online classes can be accessed over an extended period and cover a wider range of topics.

“Security is expensive, but an incident is even more costly,” says Riseling. “And an incident that isn’t dealt with really well is catastrophically costly.”

Despite higher expenses and the challenge of measuring preventive actions, the increased focus on security appears to be working.

“There have been a great number of successes in the higher ed arena since Virginia Tech,” says Dorn. “It’s tragic, but sometimes it takes an event like that to effect change. We’re in a much better place since that time.”

—Ray Bendici 

Read about April 2017 Virginia Tech remembrance planning. 

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