Virginia Tech’s impact on campus security

April 20, 2012
Many schools better prepared to deal with active shooters in wake of massacre

There are certain profound events that take place during the course of life that you will always remember where you were and what you were doing at that specific moment. I’m sure most everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001. That happened to be the first semester of my freshman year in college. I had built a break into my schedule that fall so that I could grab a bite of breakfast and study after an early morning class I had. I was standing in the cafeteria line buying a smoothie when the woman behind the register asked me if I had heard that an airplane had struck one of the Twin Towers.

Initially, I shrugged the news off, thinking that it was probably the misfortune of a pilot of some single-engine plane that veered off course. However, when the second plane hit, everyone in the student center began to converge on a small speaker’s auditorium inside the facility to watch the horror of the terror attacks unfold on the news. Panic and rumors soon swept over the crowd of students, classes were canceled and everyone scrambled to make it home to watch the events unfolding at Ground Zero.

I had a similar experience on the morning of April 16, 2007. At the time, I was working the crime beat for a small, daily newspaper in a suburb of Atlanta. After making my rounds at the county sheriff’s office and city police station, I had the pleasure of settling into a dentist’s chair for a deep cleaning of my teeth and gums. Just before the procedure, the dental hygienist asked me if I had heard about a shooting at Virginia Tech. Fortunately, the dentist’s office was modern and had televisions on the chairs that picked up CNN. There weren’t a lot of details in the initial coverage and having become largely desensitized to these types of shootings, I sort of brushed it off as not being all that significant.

It wasn’t until I got back to the office later that day that I realized the magnitude of what had happened. Thirty-two people had been killed and numerous others had been injured. It was the deadliest mass shooting in the country to date. The massacre also turned out to be a sentinel event for campus security as much would be made in the days that followed about the university’s response to the shooting. It also led to a rush by college security directors to implement enhanced mass notification and access control solutions on their campuses.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to catch up with Paul Timm, president of school security consulting firm RETA Security, to get his take on the impact the shooting has had on both college and public school campus security. Like most school security experts (click here to read an SIW roundtable on lessons learned from Virginia Tech), Timm believes that great strides have been made in securing campuses.

"Anytime there has been one of these incidents, it’s been like an educational video for everybody," he said. "We all get to see what could happen; we all get to see how to better handle it and all of those things."

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, many universities ran out and bought the latest and greatest emergency communications systems they could find, regardless of whether they knew how to implement it properly or how they were going to get students to take part in it. In the years that have followed, however, more schools have a better understanding of how these mass notification platforms work and how to get faculty and students to become active participants in them.

"Just a few short years ago, we were impressed if a college had 50 percent of its students registered (in the mass notification system). I think schools have done or are beginning to do a much better job of registering students," explained Timm. "For example, I have a son on a college campus and he cannot get to the webpage where he registers for classes until he encounters the page that asks him to provide his cellphone number so he can be part of the mass notification system. That college, as a result, is running 90 percent or higher registration levels of students on its mass notification platform. That’s awesome."

The fact remains, however, that the threat of mass shootings will always exist, but at least incidents like Virginia Tech have taught us how we can potentially minimize the loss of life.