Roundtable: Lessons learned from Virginia Tech

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.

What were some of the biggest lessons learned from the Virginia Tech massacre?

Lang: Don't sit on the message to all. Get it out. If you're wrong and it’s not what it was purported to be, then so be it, but do something and quickly.

Trump: Many of the lessons from Virginia Tech cross both university and preK-12 education settings. Having emergency plans, practicing drills, maintaining mass notification systems, working cooperatively with first responders, having crisis communications plans, training staff on best practices in security and emergency preparedness, and supporting greater mental health services for students are all solid lessons that have been reaffirmed in most school shootings. The problem, though, is that while the lessons are fairly well established, we are a society that has roller coaster public awareness, public policy and public funding when it comes to public safety in general and school safety specifically. The lessons have been learned, but are schools consistently over the long-haul investing reasonable time and money into training and implementing them? The answer, at least at the preK-12 level, in general, is no.

Cornell: We learned that seemingly random acts of violence are not truly random or unpredictable, but are often the outcome of a long process where there are multiple indications of a problem. Threat assessment teams ideally can help institutions provide help to troubled individuals or challenging situations well before they escalate to the point of violence. We learned that it is important to establish more open communication and sharing of information within and across institutions, and to establish threat assessment teams that can consult with university agencies and departments, identify potentially dangerous situations, and coordinate prevention efforts.

Timm: That mass notification systems have to be more comprehensive than they were. That was a big one, their mass notification system and the PA (public address) system that they had and email they were sending to desktop computers was insufficient. We learned that you have to have a much more robust mass notification system. Second of all, they learned that interior classrooms should have locks on them. Up until that point, that’s how “Mayberryish” we were that there were still institutions that didn’t have interior locks. It’s absurd to think about it, but they didn’t and they do now. They’ve improved or are in the process of improving door hardware beyond locks. For example, many of their exterior doors had the exit devices where they had the old push-bar exits that could be chained shut and that’s exactly what the perpetrator did (at Virginia Tech). People are moving toward the flat panel exit devices, which sort of eliminates that from even being a risk or at least greatly reduces it. Faculty and staff are now wearing IDs. I think that that’s an element of access control that is a clear improvement. If we know who people are, people who have not been authorized are standing out that much more. Access control in general has improved tremendously and communications have improved tremendously. Those are the two areas that we have to hang our hat first if we want to protect people.

Has the evolution of life safety technologies, such as campus-wide mass notification systems, done enough to improve communications on campuses and are schools using these systems to their full potential?

Lang: The technology is evolving every day and now we need to weed through what works for you and not what the salesman says. It may say it can reach 500,000 people in an hour, but how many can it notify in the 2-3 minutes that it is happening. There are many dead zones on campuses and if your reliance on cell and text is the main one, it may not get to those in need. Computer override popups can override systems used in classrooms as a backup.

Trump: Technology can support overall security and preparedness efforts. But the first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly-alert staff and student body. We have to invest in people even more than we do in technology.

Cornell: We need to improve communication before emergencies take place, by cultivating an environment where people are willing to seek help for themselves or others who seem to be in trouble. We have to reverse the code of silence and avoidance that prevents us from helping persons who are in difficult situations.

Timm: I would love to see the school that is using it to its full potential. I would guess the vast majority of schools are not using it to its full potential and that’s because what happens is we try to get a system, it has more features than we’re probably aware of sort of like our cellphone – we use the basics and we use them because we have to and it makes it more efficient to communicate. Mass communication systems we could be using better, if we’re using features and more people are aware of the features. Second of all, the companies that sold these mass notification systems then put the schools on autopilot and yet there’s been technology innovations since and they’ve not done the value-add of letting the school or entity know about that. I think it’s also incumbent upon the vendors to make sure the schools are using them to their full potential. It’s a school and a vendor issue here.

Have colleges and public schools become any better at recognizing the warning signs of active shooters and have they implemented sufficient enough policies to mitigate against potential attacks?

Lang: Many schools, such as ours, have behavior response teams in place along with alerting systems to specific personnel to head off problems. It takes follow up for each to be effective and not a "once in a while" thing. This is an integral part of the mitigation process.

Trump: We often say that at the preK-12 school level, the average second grade teacher can recognize some of the warning signs of individuals who in the future might pose a risk for violent behavior. The bigger question is what do the educators do once they recognize the warning signs? PreK-12 schools continue to cut resources for counselors, psychologists, security and school police staff, and for training those staff that continue to be on the job.

Cornell: The establishment of threat assessment teams in Virginia are a huge step forward. However, we still have work to do in developing the most effective methods for threat assessment teams to use and we have many institutions, especially our community colleges that lack adequate resources to carry out prevention work. We particularly need mental health prevention and treatment resources for our community colleges.

Timm: It’s doubtful that you could ever get sufficient enough policies to really prevent them. Once we close one gap, the bad guy finds another gap. Once we put one practice in place, getting compliance with that practice can become difficult. My hope would be that we get close to sufficient, but I like to say sort of a corollary to that and you can never make your risk level equal zero. But, the idea of reducing risk as much as possible is the goal. In terms of are we better at recognizing the signs, I would hope we are. I would say one of the ways that we’re definitely better is we are beginning to lessen the stigma of mental health. In many of these incidents, there have been mental health issues that have played a central component. Over and over again, our mental health resources and our awareness of those resources and people that take advantage of those resources are looked upon a whole lot more kindly and as a necessary component than ever before.

What do you believe the future holds for campus safety operations?

Lang: The emergence of the realization that campus police or security cannot do it themselves and operate as normal. Including active shooter in their procedures is fine, but still, the issue is it’s probably over (others killed and the assailant killed or by suicide) before the police arrive. You need others, crisis management teams in every building to either evacuate or shelter in as necessary. They must be trained and tested with drills. This is a main area that needs support.

Trump: We are a society that legislates by anecdote and governs by knee-jerk reactions. This applies from Congress down to many local school boards. We have roller coaster public awareness, public policy and public funding for school safety. Based on past behaviors and trends, there is a substantial risk that schools will continue to under-invest the time and financial resources proactively to reduce safety risks and increase preparedness on a consistent, long-term basis.

Cornell: We need a balance of both prevention and crisis response efforts.

Timm: Well, the future’s bright. The future’s bright because violence, in general, is not going away and so it’s a need. Whereas I think in the past, People always looked at security as a necessary evil. I think we’re beginning to understand that security is more than a necessary evil. Security is foundational to a safe learning environment.

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