Roundtable: Lessons learned from Virginia Tech

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

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.