Roundtable: Lessons learned from Virginia Tech

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


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.