Lessons Learned from Virginia Tech

From Columbine in 1999 to Virginia Tech last April, each campus shooting provides critical lessons for school administrators and law enforcement about how they can best protect our nation's schools, colleges and universities.

In a crisis situation, such as a gunman on campus, administrators and law enforcement should look to proven and established electronic security technologies as a tool to help prevent death and injury.

We must learn from each of these tragic shootings in hopes that we can prevent similar events on other campuses. After reviewing many cases, it is clear to me that electronic security technology can play a vital role in minimizing casualties.

The events at Virginia Tech serve as an example. There were no cameras at the entrances to any dormitories or classroom buildings on the campus last April 16 when Seung Hui Cho killed two people in a dormitory. More than two hours later he entered a classroom building and killed another 30 people and wounded 17 others before taking his own life.

According to official reports, Cho left the first two victims' dormitory with his clothing covered with blood. He then returned to his own dorm room in another building.

A review of stored video images from cameras would have allowed investigators to review who entered and left the first dormitory around the time of the first shooting. Today's high-resolution cameras and recorders would have helped to identify different characteristics of a potential suspect or suspects.

By reviewing video from other cameras, campus police could have spotted Cho entering his own dormitory. Entrance to the campus dorms requires a card key so the name on the card and time of entry would have been recorded in a computer. By matching the times on the camera and the access system, campus police could have put a name and a face on their suspect and could have potentially determined his location more quickly.

Cameras also could have been used to show whether or not the campus police department's initial suspect - the first victim's boyfriend -had entered the dormitory after dropping off the victim about 15 minutes before the shooting. Police sent more than an hour of critical time looking for him.

Had cameras been in place last April, they might have provided the necessary evidence to stop Cho after he had killed his first two victims.

There are also mass notification systems that are capable of almost instantly reaching thousands of people with valuable instructions or information during a crisis. Such systems allow administrators to use email, text and voice messages and pagers to reach students, faculty and staff. Since the shooting last spring, Virginia Tech has installed such a system.

And there are notification systems capable of delivering - within a quarter-mile radius - intelligible voice instructions for people outdoors during a crisis. Such a system was recently installed at Radford University, a small college 15 miles from Virginia Tech. By providing useable information, rather than just a siren or horn, these new communications systems give people specific information that can help reduce personal injury and limit property during a crisis.

The lesson I hope we learn from these tragic shootings is that video surveillance and mass communications systems have the ability to help prevent or reduce death and injury and should become a part of security plans for K-12 schools and colleges and universities.

About the Author: Patrick Fiel is the public safety advisor specializing in education for ADT Security Services. He brings more than 30 years of security experience to the position. For six years was executive director of school security of Washington, D.C. Public School System, where he managed 163 school campuses. During his tenure with the United States Army Military Police Corps, he had operational and management oversight roles with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) at the Pentagon, at NATO Headquarters - Belgium, and at West Point Military Academy.