You are here


Tragedy at Virginia Tech

Security experts review the events on the Blacksburg campus, while higher ed officials nationwide review emergency procedures. What could have been done to prevent fatalities?
University Business, Apr 2007

The facts about the incident at Virginia Polytechnic Institute that took place Monday, April 16, are staggering. A total of 33 students and staff were killed in the deadliest shooting in America. The gunman, English student Cho Seung-Hui, was a loner who was identified as troubled by at least two professors at Virginia Tech. After killing two people at 7:15 a.m. that morning, he mailed a tape to NBC News ( in which he ranted against the wealthy and insisted that society drove him to his actions.

The questions now being raised related to Cho, Virginia Tech, and the shootings are daunting.

"I did it. ... I had to do it," Cho says on tape, while brandishing guns and other weapons. The tape reveals an enraged and emotionally ill young man. Roommates and others on campus recall Cho as anti-social. He rarely spoke and gave only one word-answers to questions about his major or other matters.

Yet his course writings contained violent and murderous images, and they revealed anger toward women and what he perceived as other privileged students.

The questions now being raised related to Cho, Virginia Tech, and the shootings are daunting. Details continue to emerge about the sequence of events on the Blacksburg university campus, which enrolls 26,000 students.

Why didn't campus security lock down the campus after the first shootings at the dormitory Ambler Johnston Hall? By taking time to confer with the President Charles Steger and then chase down a false lead on another suspect in two fatal shootings there, campus police wasted valuable time, says Adam Thermos, a security expert who has consulted on security matters for 100 colleges and universities. Cho had the opportunity to move on to Norris Hall, where he fatally shot 30 others in four classrooms and in a stairway before shooting himself.

"When all kids are secure, then you meet with the president," Thermos says. E-mail alerts about danger on campus were not broadcast for at least one-and-a-half hours after the initial two shootings. At times the volume of e-mail going out reportedly choked the server, while the volume of hits to the Virginia Tech's website also caused crashes.

Thermos adds that Virginia Tech was not unfamiliar with emergencies. In the fall the campus was alerted to a shooting incident involving an ex-con near campus. This year the Virginia Tech has also dealt with a bomb threats. He believes more should have been done early on.

In the wake of the tragedy, campus security officials throughout the nation began discourse about emergency alerts. The Florida's public universities are reportedly now asking for an additional $3.5 million to hire 20 more police officers and upgrade emergency communications systems. The University of Hawaii is considering arming its campus security guards and upgrading them to police status.

Are new technologies the answer? A proliferation of early alert systems have emerged during the last two years. These systems are able to push messages to students and staff via e-mail, cellphone, PDA, or webpage. Some can also broadcast emergency alerts on digital signage.

Still, such systems require investment and the cost is prohibitive for some colleges and universities. Other systems install GPS tracking in students' cellphones so that they send emergency alerts if they are in trouble.

After the shooting, authorities at Virginia Tech reported to the media they have been reviewing such emergency alert systems.

Many other higher ed officials have noted, though, that it is hard to call the shots during such catastrophes.

"Despite how connected people are today, there seems to be a challenge in notifying a large number of people quickly,""Despite how connected people are today, there seems to be a challenge in notifying a large number of people quickly."

"Despite how connected people are today, there seems to be a challenge in notifying a large number of people quickly," says Paul Dempsey, director of electronic communication at Dickinson College (Pa.). Authorities at Dickenson, like so many this week at colleges and universities, are reviewing emergency plans and security strategies.

"My understanding is that Virginia Tech had an emergency plan," says Dempsey. "Now [officials] are being second guessed. No one knew this was going to happen. No one can plan for every contingency."

Virginia Tech's Police Chief Wendell Flinchum has reiterated in press conferences that the team at the scene of the first shooting acted quickly on the information they had at the time.

Other education officials have offered condolences and perspective. "Incidents such as these are as tragic as they are rare on American college campuses," says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. "Unfortunately it seems no workplace or community institute is immune from random gun violence."

Granted, it is important to have perspective. Still, higher ed officials must acknowledge that campus shootings do happen. Two weeks prior to the shootings at Virginia Tech, a murder-suicide incident happened at the University of Washington in Seattle. A female staff member was stalked and then shot by a man who had made threats to her, explains Norm Arkans, executive director of media relations and communications. While campus police and co-workers were aware of the problems-and the staff members' restraining order against her eventual murderer-the killer was still cunning enough to gain access to her office.

"In the aftermath of our experience and the experience at Virginia Tech, we are looking at additional technologies."

Some wonder if Virginia Tech should have employed good, old-fashioned technologies earlier on Monday. While officials did broadcast emergency messages over loudspeakers, students reported that they didn't hear such messages until into the afternoon.

Thermos adds that more could be done to train the campus security teams. Oftentimes campus police are unarmed, he notes. He advocates that campus police be armed and as professionally trained as any other law enforcement body.

Other debates center around parental notification and just how far a university can go to remove a troubled student.

Immediately following the shootings, people reported that they had complained about Cho's behavior in 2005 regarding two separate incidents.

An English teacher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute was so alarmed by some of the Cho's writings that she asked him to not attend class. Two other complaints came from female students. Cho had contacted one in person and by telephone; she then contacted campus police. Cho contacted another via instant message. After she complained to campus police, they asked Cho to not contact her again.

In 2005, Cho was subjected to a court-ordered pyschiatric examination that found him to be "an imminent danger to himself," and was ordered to undergo outpatient therapy. He is also reported to have spoken of suicide several times.

Higher ed officials counter these observations with reminders of students' right to privacy. A university cannot contact a student's family without that student's consent. The idea that the institution acts <italics here>in loco parentis</i>-or in place of a parent-is limited in today's college setting. While officials at Virginia Tech urged Cho to get help, they say they were limited by privacy constraints.

Now officials are raising questions about background checks for college applicants. The idea seems to be getting traction. A North Carolina company, Certified Background, reported conducts checks for 500 colleges, up from fewer than one dozen three years ago.

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine is appointing an independent panel to review the university's response.

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>