Roundtable: Lessons learned from Virginia Tech

School security experts discuss the strides made in campus safety since the massacre

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech University. On April 16, 2007, 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho, an undergraduate student at the school, opened fire with two handguns, killing 32 people and wounding 17 others.

The massacre immediately became the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. In the weeks and months that followed the shooting, much was made about the university’s response to the shooting and the need for better campus access control and communications systems to warn and keep faculty and students safe during active shooter scenarios. Just last month, families of two victims in the shooting rampage who accused the university of negligence in a lawsuit were awarded $4 million each by a jury.

In the years since the shooting, many schools have implemented mass communication systems that involve multi-modal methods of communication, such as text messages, email alerts and digital signage. The question remains, however, are college and public school campuses any safer now than they were then?

SIW posed this and several other questions to a panel of school security experts including; Robert (Bob) Lang, assistant vice president for strategic security and safety at Kennesaw State University in Georgia; Paul Timm, PSP and president of Chicago-based school security consulting firm RETA Security; Dewey Cornell, Ph.D., a youth violence researcher and clinical psychologist and professor of education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia; and, Kenneth Trump, president of Ohio-based consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services.

Are we better prepared to deal with active shooter incidents on campuses better today than we were five years ago?

Lang: Yes. With the after action reports and especially Va. Tech being held liable on the timeliness of their notifications, most have taken the proactive and responsible approach to mitigating the threats with technology (sirens, early notifications with cell and SMS texting, emails, etc.)But, one of the main issues is how do you prepare your people (students, faculty and staff) to know how to respond?

Trump: More schools are better prepared for active shooters than they were five to ten years ago, but that does not necessarily mean “more” equals many or all. A number of schools have taken the next step from lockdown drills and training to actually making their buildings available for, and participating in, active shooter exercises. It is safe to say the majority of preK-12 schools in the country, however, have not done so.

Cornell: My interest and expertise concerns prevention rather than crisis response. I think we are much better prepared to prevent shootings because of the statewide implementation of threat assessment teams. At our university we actively deal with troubling situations that have the potential to lead to violence. Although it is not possible to say whether you prevented someone from committing a violent act, we can say that our threat assessment team has helped deal with many problems and concerns, none of which have resulted in violence.

Timm: Yes. I wished we were way better prepared, but we are better prepared and here are the reasons why. First of all, local law enforcement is better prepared. So, whether you have a campus police force or not, your local law enforcement has had better briefings, better trainings, there is better coordination in terms of agencies and supplies and everything. For sure our responders are better; there is no doubt about that. In terms of preventing an incident like that, I think we are better prepared because any time there is an incident like this our awareness level goes up, even if it’s for a short amount of time, our awareness level does go up and that bodes well for people being more likely to report things or see things in time to prevent them or intervene or whatever the case may be. Of course, there may have been days where parents would not even have sent their kids to institutions where they’re sending them today because the institution can prove that they’ve got mass notification systems, that they’ve got better plans and procedures for these kinds of things.

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