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Higher Education's 9/11: Crisis Management

Lessons From The Tragedy At Virginia Tech
University Business, Dec 2007

In the world of academe, each new academic year offers the sense of excitement and hope. However, the tragic events of April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech - often referred to as Higher Education's 9/11 - have fundamentally altered the manner in which we now must prepare for each new year, especially with regard to recognizing and addressing the behaviors of at-risk students.

Following months of interviews, examination of institutional systems, and the analysis of applicable state and federal laws, three panel reports relating to the tragedy were issued:

Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy (June 13, 2007)

Presidential Internal Review: Working Group Report on the Interface Between Virginia Tech Counseling Services, Academic Affairs, Judicial Affairs and Legal Systems (August 17, 2007)

Report of the Review Panel to Governor Kaine of the Commonwealth of Virginia (August 30, 2007)

Each investigative panel identified a variety of factors that may have contributed to Seung-Hui Cho's ability to carry out his rampage on April 16. Although colleges and universities across the country have been loathe to second-guess the actions of Virginia Tech leading up to that horrific day, the magnitude of this event initiated a wave of deliberate introspection by institutions to examine their own systems, plans and communication technology in order to determine institutional readiness to manage a similar crisis.

Each of these major reports were prepared independently; however, a number of "lessons learned" were common to all and warrant serious attention by other colleges and universities.

An institution's success in dealing with conduct of at-risk students or other campus emergencies is in direct proportion to the ability of constituencies to collaborate and work effectively with one another.

In the report to Governor Kaine (Governor's Panel), a number of key findings were made regarding poor or incomplete communication, including:

Numerous incidents occurred during Cho's junior year that were clear warnings of instability; however, the University did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information or connected all the dots.

Several University offices, including Judicial Affairs, the Cook Counseling Center, and the Dean of Students, explained failures to communicate with one another or with Cho's parents, by stating they believed that such communications were prohibited by federal laws governing the privacy of health and education records.

The University's Family Assistance Center fell short in helping families following the attack due to lack of leadership and coordination among service providers.

In addition to encouraging training in crisis management, the Report to the President of Virginia Tech includes a number of recommendations to ensure that the University's communications system is comprehensive, secure and responsive:

Ensure a greater understanding of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) within the University.

Enhance the comprehensive assessment of a case to ensure that serious incidents are reported to a central office, and that information which can be shared is, in fact, shared.

Establish a central University contact for information regarding students at risk.

Communicate with outside agencies that have relevance to campus or individual safety, while observing the legal and ethical imperatives regarding information sharing.

Ensure that, in time of emergency, the University is able to contact someone on the student's behalf if they are not able to do so.

Whatever crisis management plan is adopted, it must be responsive to the institution's needs and capabilities. As a public university with a campus population of almost 35,000, Virginia Tech has the resources to employ a fully-accredited police force to monitor a 2,600 acre campus with 131 major buildings. In addition, the University established numerous means to communicate with the campus community, including: (1) a campus-wide broadcast e-mail system; (2) a web site to post emergency warnings; (3) a text messaging system; (4) a broadcast phone mail system; and (5) outdoor loudspeakers to make emergency announcements. Despite the existence of these systems, which either were operational or almost complete on April 16, the Governor's Panel concluded that "[t]he protocol for sending an emergency message ... was cumbersome, untimely and problematic when a decision was needed as soon as possible." Further, "[t]he [Virginia Tech] police did not have the capability to send an emergency alert message on their own."

Recommendations from the Governor's Panel, therefore, included the following:

Universities should conduct a threat assessment and then choose a level of security appropriate for their campus.

Campus emergency communication systems must have multiple means of sharing information.

Clearly, the size and resources of institutions will dictate the extent to which they are able to invest in security technology. However, every college or university has the obligation to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment that will provide a solid foundation for future planning.

Each campus must establish an effective crisis management team that can be convened quickly, has the flexibility to adapt to the demands of different events, and is comprised of those campus leaders and decision makers who will ensure effective, timely and broad-based communication.

The Governor's Panel concluded that Virginia Tech's emergency response plan was deficient in several ways: (1) it did not include provisions or training for a shooting scenario; (2) it did not place police high enough in the emergency decision making hierarchy; and (3) it did not include a threat assessment team. As a result, Panel recommendations included:

Establishment of a threat assessment team that includes representatives from law enforcement, human resources, student and academic affairs, legal counsel and mental health functions.

Campus police as well as administration officials should have the authority and capability to send an emergency message.

The head of campus police should be a member of both the threat assessment and emergency response teams.

Each institution must develop an effective media plan that carefully identifies the message, when it should be issued, and by whom.

The magnitude of events at Virginia Tech on April 16 would have strenuously tested communications procedures on any college or university campus. Further, according to the Governor's Panel: Discussions with family members of the deceased victims and the survivors and their family members revealed how critical it is to address the needs of those most closely related to victims with rapid and effective victim services and an organized family assistance center with carefully controlled information management.

The increase of litigation involving colleges and universities over the last several years serves as a constant reminder that words matter; that the words selected can create lasting consequences. Therefore, because the impact of what is said during and immediately following a crisis on campus can be significant, the Governor's Panel made a number of recommendations regarding communications systems that merit serious consideration on all campuses, including:

Regular training in crisis management is essential, including the development of effective and timely communications procedures.

The response to emergencies caused by crime should start with a local plan that is linked to the wider campus and surrounding community. Therefore, colleges and universities should work with their local government partners to improve plans for mutual aid in all areas of crisis response and to receive all necessary information quickly.

Regularly scheduled briefings should be provided to victims' families regarding the status of any investigations.

Additionally, institutions should give careful consideration to the campus spokesperson during and following a crisis. For example, is it appropriate for the President to speak? Or, should the spokesperson be someone from the Public Affairs Office? And, what factors determine whether the spokesperson should be the President or someone else?

Never underestimate the value of institutional legal counsel in the development and/or review of the crisis management plan, as well as related policies and procedures.

Institutional legal counsel is, and continues to be, one of the most valuable resources on campus to review the lessons of Virginia Tech and assist with the development and implementation of crisis management plans. By training and practice, legal counsel has developed the analytical skill to examine a variety of worst-case scenarios and develop remedies that are compliant with applicable law; consistent with the institution's Mission and related policies and procedures; and responsive to immediate and long-term campus needs. It also is important to note that, on a daily basis, legal counsel for the vast majority of colleges and universities have ready access to the most recent legal developments. By means of an institution's membership in the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA), over 3,500 attorneys, representing 1,600 campuses in the U.S. and abroad, participate in active discussions and analysis of issues on NACUA's listserv, review weekly case law updates and scholarly publications; attend virtual and special seminars on topics of significant interest; as well as annual conferences that address the myriad of legal issues that relate to day-to-day campus operations. In fact, on April 16, 2007, NACUA colleagues from across the country were in immediate and close contact to provide assistance and supportive materials to one another and colleagues at Virginia Tech. In sum, legal counsel's daily participation in NACUA offers each campus a wealth of information that will be invaluable in the institutional review of crisis management plans.

In their Report to the President of Virginia Tech, the authors state that "[a] strong, vibrant and supportive community is essential in ensuring a safe campus environment. An environment that promotes civility, works toward the acceptance of others' differences, strives to include rather than exclude and provides assistance to those in need is fundamental to a safe campus." Further, "... any system needs to be dynamic in nature to adjust to the changes that continually emerge from the needs of the university community and the new lessons learned from on-going evaluation of the system and best practices of our peers." May we all benefit from these lessons for the sake of our campuses and to honor the lives of those lost on April 16.

Kathleen A. Rinehart is a partner and leads the Education Law Practice at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C. She represents colleges, universities and K-12 districts in Wisconsin and Illinois, and currently serves as a member of the board for the National Association of Colleges and Universities.

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