The news was bad the morning of April 16, and as the hours unfolded, it only got worse.
In a residence hall on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, two students had been shot to death. A couple of hours later, the tragedy multiplied by horrific proportions as across campus, students and instructors — 30 in all — were gunned down in a classroom building.
As the gruesome details emerged of the worst shooting incident in U.S. history, educators and administrators at schools and universities absorbed yet another painful reminder of the threats and dangers that can rise up at a moment's notice and shatter the belief that education institutions are safe havens from the ills of the outside world.
With his shooting rampage that day, Seung-Hui Cho joined the notorious ranks of Charles Whitman, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris as troubled students who vented their rage in deadly violence against their school colleagues. Virginia Tech, like Columbine High School eight years earlier, was destined to be forever associated with the ugly realities of school violence.
For those responsible for safety and security at the thousands of schools and universities in the United States, the best response is to look with sadder and wiser eyes at their campuses and pore over their emergency plans to see if more steps can be taken to make students, employees and visitors safer.
“We have already made great strides to upgrade campus security and ensure that our world-class institutions remain safe places to live, learn and innovate,” American Council on Education president David Ward told the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last month. “But we cannot rest on our laurels. As the events of Virginia Tech have shown, there is always some new and tragic episode or circumstance around the corner.”
A deadly plan
Shortly after 7 a.m. on April 16, Cho, 23, entered West Ambler Johnston Hall, a student residence on the campus of Virginia Tech, and fatally shot two students. Some two hours passed before Cho showed up at Norris Hall, a classroom building.
In a nine-minute span, he fired 170 rounds of ammunition and killed 30 people before turning one of his guns on himself. More than 20 others were wounded by gunfire or injured as they fled the shooting. More than a week after the shooting, investigators said they had established no link between Cho and any of the victims.
The police response to Norris Hall was delayed several minutes because Cho had blocked their entry by chaining shut each of the building's three main entrances.
Cho's self-inflicted gunshot ended the carnage at Virginia Tech, but not the questions about why the shootings occurred and if they could have been prevented. Many of the questions focused on why Virginia Tech authorities did not issue a campuswide warning after the residence-hall slayings, and why Cho was allowed to continue his schooling and even purchase guns when he had displayed many signs of mental troubles.
Investigators initially believed the residence-hall shooting involved people who knew each other, and the university did not send out a campuswide message about the slayings until two hours after they occurred. Police were questioning someone they believed was a potential suspect when the second wave of shooting began at Norris Hall.
Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine has appointed an independent panel that will review the circumstances surrounding the shootings — Cho's interaction with the mental-health system prior to the shootings, the details of the shootings themselves, and the response of authorities as the tragedy unfolded.
“What we learn could result in fresh ideas that will help bolster the safety of our young people on campuses in communities across the country,” says Kaine.
Other states have reacted to the Virginia Tech tragedy by beginning reviews of the crisis plans and emergency procedures on college campuses.
College campuses, especially large universities with numerous buildings dispersed over many acres, face security challenges more daunting than those found in the typical K-12 school, which is usually housed in a single facility.
“The best way to think of a campus is to view it as a self-contained small- to medium-sized city — with all the activity, vibrancy and, sadly, vulnerability, associated with cities,” says Ward.
At hearings held by the Senate Homeland Security committee a week after the Virginia Tech massacre, educators, administrators and security experts offered recommendations for how schools and universities can provide safer learning and living environments for students, while trying to maintain the atmosphere students expect on a campus.
“The nature of schools, particularly colleges and universities, is such that imposing air-tight security on a campus is profoundly antithetical to the nature, philosophy and reality of what is expected,” Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told the Homeland Security committee.
Steven Healy, director of public safety at Princeton University and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, told the committee that creating the balance between openness and security is one of the greatest challenges for university officials.
“We must assure the safety of our students in the classrooms and in their dormitories while protecting facilities critical to business, health and national defense,” he said.
Russ Federman, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia, told senators that colleges should be taking a greater role in identifying and helping students who are having mental and emotional difficulties. He cited the American College Health Association's 2006 National College Health Assessment, which found that 94 percent of students reported in the last year feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do, and 44 percent said they have felt so depressed it was difficult to function; 1.3 percent reported trying to kill themselves.
Federman stressed that students who seek mental-health treatment must be able to rely on the expectation that what they reveal to a counselor is confidential.
“From the point of view of the patient, confidentiality is one of the salient factors that allow them to reach out in the first place,” Federman testified. “Students need to be able to express their most disturbing and frightening thoughts without fears of unwanted confidence.”
However, he continued, “it is clear that university officials also need to be able to communicate to one another, and sometimes with parents, when student threat of harm reaches a threshold that the university community is no longer safe.”
Redlener suggested that Congress pursue legislation that would eliminate constraints that prevent colleges from informing parents about students who pose a threat to themselves or others. The Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) allows schools to notify parents under certain circumstances, but Redlener says schools believe it still leaves them liable for disclosing the information. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits the notification of parents unless a student signs a waiver.
Redlener also called for a federally sponsored national conference on identification and intervention strategies likely to be most effective in preventing campus violence.
Spreading the word
Many schools and universities are looking at better ways to get the word out to students and others on their campuses when an incident occurs. On large campuses such as Virginia Tech, which has more than 26,000 students, it is unlikely that any one method of sending out news will reach everybody. Some students may be in classrooms, others may be napping in their residence halls; some may be strolling across campus; others may be hunkered down in the library for uninterrupted study.
Among the systems that schools around the nation are using or considering are ones that can deliver messages by intercom, telephone, computer or wireless devices. Using a variety of delivery methods, a school is more likely to get the message out in ways that students are accustomed to using.
“Universities need to know how students on their campuses [like to be communicated with],” University of Central Oklahoma President W. Roger Webb told the committee. “By using all available methods, including the social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, as well as third-party mass communications systems such as voice mail and text messaging, we improve our odds of reaching our students on campus in the event of an emergency.”
Healy also urged the committee to support the creation of a National Center for Campus Public Safety, a proposal that came out of a U.S. Justice Department National Summit on Campus Public Safety.
“A national center will be an invaluable resource for all who have a stake in campus public safety,” Healy testified.
The price of safety
Any upgrade in security comes with a cost, and education institutions often don't have funds available to carry out the improvements they need or desire.
“A critical element of emergency planning and preparation is allocating sufficient resources to upgrade the equipment and tools that will promote and enhance security,” says Ward. “Technology increasingly plays an important role in protecting the campus community, but it can be expensive to purchase, and it is never foolproof.”
Federal grants from the Justice and Homeland Security departments have helped schools and universities train their personnel to respond to threats and emergencies.
Federman noted that although counseling centers on campus have received more resources in recent years, it has not been enough to keep up with increased numbers of students.
“We're not getting ahead of the curve,” he says. “If anything, we are sliding behind.”
When clinical treatment and case management takes up most of a counselor's time, they “cannot do an adequate job with the preventative work of outreach and education.”
“Universities must be able to get ahead of the curve with resources devoted to the mental health needs of their students,” Federman testified. “The cost of university education is more than many families can bear. We cannot add to tuition or fees as a solution.”
Be ready for everything
In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy, schools and universities are focusing attention on preventing campus violence, but administrators also must remain vigilant about addressing other threats that could jeopardize the safety of the school community.
Campuses across the nation face common dangers, such as fires; rarer catastrophes such as earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes; or even health crises, such as a flu breakout (see sidebars pages 20 and 22). Education institutions need to have plans in place so personnel can react quickly in case one of these unwelcome events strikes their facilities.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com.
One prominent example of advance planning for possible emergencies is the response that authorities have prepared for an outbreak of bird flu.
According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bird flu viruses, also known as avian flu, usually do not affect humans. But since 2004, more than 200 confirmed human cases have been reported around the world. Because flu viruses can change, scientists are concerned that avian flu could one day begin to infect more humans and spread easily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have developed checklists for K-12 schools and colleges to help them be ready in case of a worldwide outbreak of the bird flu.
The lists cover four categories: planning and coordination; continuity of student learning; infection control policies and procedures; and communications planning.
The CDC urges both school districts and higher-education institutions to work with local and state health departments to establish how the community will respond to a flu outbreak. It recommends that schools and colleges develop alternative procedures for continuing instruction even if school facilities close. Those approaches could include courses on the web, information disseminated through telephone trees, assignments delivered by mail, or instruction broadcast by radio or television.
Education institutions also should have a sufficient amount of supplies for preventing infection — soap, alcohol-based, waterless hand hygiene products, tissues and receptacles for their disposal.
The CDC says schools and colleges should develop and test ways to disseminate information to staff, students and families in the event of a pandemic. Some recommended methods are hotlines, telephone trees, websites, and local radio and television stations.
The checklist for K-12 schools is at www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/schoolchecklist.html, and the checklist for colleges and universities is at www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/school/collegeschecklist.html.
After the deluge
As numerous schools throughout the Gulf Coast can attest, natural catastrophes have the potential to wreak havoc on campus facilities and place students, employees and visitors in physical danger.
Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, along with the FBI and the U.S. Homeland Security Department, sponsored a report, “Campus Public Safety Preparedness for Catastrophic Events: Lessons Learned,” which looked at schools affected by the storms and provides guidance for institutions that may find themselves in similar circumstances.
“It is imperative to have up-to-date emergency operation plans that address all hazards and that are exercised on a regular basis,” the report says. “During the hurricanes, many schools found themselves without adequate plans and were forced to adopt hastily planned responses.”
Among the numerous recommendations:
Consult with engineers when selecting shelter sites on campus. “Many seemingly ‘obvious’ sites (such as sporting arenas) are not best for withstanding weather,” the report notes.
Determining the Global Positioning System locations of campus buildings may help workers deliver relief supplies in case local signs are destroyed.
Resolve who has legal authority over campus resources and operations before a crisis occurs.
Make agreements with other entities in your area for supplies. “Campuses with pre-existing arrangements for buses, food, fuel, water and (information technology) functions had a generally faster response time and smoother recovery operations,” the report says.
Crisis-preparedness planners should form relationships with the area's Homeland Security Advisor, Emergency Management Assistance Coordinator, and the FBI special agent in charge.
Beat officers — not just senior officers — should have some level of command post and command/emergency-management training.
Offer campus officers more training in shelter management, critical incident management and crowd control.
To avoid confusion among municipal, county, state and federal officials, have written agreements in place before an event occurs that clarify command structure and coordination.
Have power generators available to recharge communications equipment.
Satellite phones and UHF/VHF radios can be effective in situations where other radios and cell phones are unreliable.
Internet sites are critical for communicating with campus communities.
Consider making agreements with outside entities to provide water and ice.
Backup generators that run for short periods are inadequate when power is cut off for extended periods.
Position generators well above ground level. Key generators also should be armored to protect them from windborne projectiles.
Stage patrol vehicles away from flood-prone areas; disperse vehicles in separate locations so that a catastrophic event at one site does not render all vehicles unusable.
Keep employee contact information current and in a safe location that is accessible during an emergency.
Campuses should make sure they have adequate counseling available for victims of a catastrophe.
Consider moving information technology servers away from campus to help preserve payroll operations and other vital records.
The entire 148-page report is at www.iaclea.org/visitors/PDFs/LessonsLearnedReportFinal.pdf.