Campuses across Virginia and around the nation have adopted better tragedy-prevention measures and faster, more effective emergency alerting in the wake of the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech.
“At that point in American history, it was the worst mass-casualty shooting and murder in our nation,” said Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “It changed things, I would say, dramatically.”
The tragedy prompted numerous studies, and that led to widespread changes and improvements across the country, she said.
Virginia Tech and other schools now have systems to send alerts to students through texting and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Virginia Commonwealth University was one of the first schools in the nation to adopt the LiveSafe app, which allows students to send texts, pictures and videos directly to emergency officials. And new processes for declaring an emergency lockdown are meant to save time and alert campus communities more quickly.
In Virginia, reviews of the shooting led to hundreds of recommendations. Mark Owczarski, assistant vice president for university relations at Virginia Tech, said, “Virtually every single one of those was implemented in one shape or form or another.”
Unfortunately, he added, “some people will believe that ... Virginia Tech solved everything. But as we know, sadly, from multiple events that have happened, safety will always be an issue. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process.”
According to timelines assembled afterward, the first shootings of two people at the West Ambler Johnston residential hall at Virginia Tech 10 years ago occurred at 7:15 a.m. But the first email to students, faculty and staff notifying them of the first shooting was sent at 9:26 a.m. — more than two hours later.
Seung-Hui Cho, known by some on campus to be deeply troubled and worrisome, returned to his room at Harper Hall after the shooting and changed out of his bloody clothes.
Subsequent reviews found, among other things, that the campus police could not send an emergency alert on their own — they had to wait for an Emergency Policy Group to make the decision.
Cho had time to erase his university email account and go to the post office to mail a package to NBC News.
He then went to Norris Hall, where he chained shut the doors at three entrances. He started shooting people about 9:40 a.m., and police were first called at 9:41 a.m.
At 9:50 a.m., officers used a shotgun to blast open a fourth door and get inside. Investigators believe Cho killed himself after hearing the shotgun.
In roughly 11 minutes, he killed 30 people at Norris Hall and wounded 17 others. By the time the university notified students that a gunman was loose on campus, also at 9:50 a.m., the massacre was over.
Riseling and Kim Richmond, director of the National Center for Campus Public Safety, agree that it was the Tech shooting that brought to the forefront threat assessment teams — aimed at preventing such incidents — as well as improvements in campuswide alerts and communication and coordination between campus and outside authorities at the local, state and federal levels.
“This incident has been reviewed and investigated and every angle has been taken, and we now know so much more than the people who were reacting that day. It’s not really fair to judge them in light of what we all know today,” Riseling said.
She said the tragedy at Virginia Tech was on a scale never experienced previously at an institution of higher education.
But she said the circumstances that led Cho to commit the crimes are all too common: “Unmanaged mental health issues; easy access to firearms; a lack of communication among campus direct service providers; and erroneous interpretation of federal (privacy) law ... all coalesced into the perfect storm at Virginia Tech in April 2007.”
In the wake of the Tech shootings, Riseling said, new emergency alert systems were put in place and legislation was passed that requires colleges and university campuses to make instant alerts over text and other messaging systems that did not exist — or existed in a limited way — in 2007.
There also are outdoor sirens and signs in classrooms, she said.
The threat assessment teams look for anyone exhibiting strange or threatening behavior. If there is concern that a person might hurt themselves, they might be referred to one part of the team, she said.
“If they are threatening others, it goes to the threat team. They are multidisciplined, and they usually have a psychologist or psychiatrist on the team, someone from law enforcement, someone from the dean’s office, students — it’s a mixed group.
“What they’re trying to do is find the intervention that will get this person off the path of moving toward violence or, if necessary, remove them from the environment,” Riseling said.
“That’s one of the most profound differences from (prior to) Virginia Tech — flipping things around a bit and getting into prevention, making sure that different offices are talking to each other.”
Changes at VCU, the state’s third-largest university, typify those found on other campuses — such as extensive threat assessment efforts.
John A. Venuti, chief of VCU’s Police Department, will not critique police or officials about the handling of events at Tech a decade ago.
“No one gets second-guessed more than campus law enforcement. ... It’s just one of those things that comes with the territory,” he said.
Venuti was with the Richmond Police Department from 1984 to 2010, when he left to take over at VCU.
“I’ve walked in the municipal world in Richmond overseeing homicide for seven years. Something bad happens, you respond, you go take care of it and you move on,” he said.
“In this world, it’s very, very different, and it’s much more difficult because you have all these obligations and responsibilities before you can actually even begin to address what’s happened.”
Since taking the job at VCU, there have been a large number of changes, many of them in place at other campuses and some of them at the cutting edge.
The surveillance camera system has been rebuilt completely. The cameras are set up to allow police to track a suspect across the sprawling urban school’s two campuses from the Emergency Communications Center.
The cameras are not all monitored all the time, but dispatchers can turn to any of them as needed from the communications center to monitor reported or suspected trouble in progress.
Buildings on campus also can be locked from the communications center to prevent people from entering — but allowing those inside to exit.
Another major change since 2007, Venuti said, is the ability for law enforcement agencies to respond to major incidents and work closely together.
VCU police, area police departments, the Virginia State Police, the FBI and other agencies are now able to work together more smoothly than in the past. VCU police can even share radio communications and dispatching with the city.
“We know when we have incidents on college campuses that are serious in nature, we get a flood of resources,” Venuti said. “If I need anything from the FBI right now, I call one guy and that’s really, really helpful.”
The agencies go through Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, and the FBI holds a couple of statewide meetings each year for campus law enforcement leaders and participates in and provides training, Venuti said.
The VCU Police Department’s technology, tactics and training have all changed in the past decade, but Venuti declined to give details for security reasons.
“Nowadays, we’re much better prepared,” he said.
Venuti said these events have taught law enforcement that the perpetrator may use obstructions such as chains to delay help reaching the scene.
“We have all that equipment and technology to deal with whatever may be necessary,” he said.
Alerting the campus population quickly in the event of serious emergencies also has undergone change.
Venuti said that as a city police officer, “I responded to hundreds and hundreds of homicides, shootings, you name it in Richmond — very rarely when you get there are the facts the same one hour later. When you get there, all the information is preliminary.”
Yet, he said, “in campus law enforcement, we’re mandated to immediately do an assessment of preliminary facts, and it’s really tough.”
In 2007, emergency notification in life-threatening situations at VCU was a “multilayered” process that could cause delays, Venuti said.
One of the first things he did as chief was change the alert delegation protocol. His department has close to 100 sworn officers, and the supervising officer in charge of the department at any given day or time has the authority to issue all levels of alerts.
On the back of the Miranda warning cards his officers carry is a list of three conditions that need to be met in order to call for an emergency alert: “Life threatening?” “Active/imminent?” “Does it require immediate action from people on campus?”
Time can fly for a supervisor at the scene of a major incident, Venuti said. So his dispatchers prompt the supervisor on the scene at three, five and seven minutes and ask if an emergency alert is needed.
A full emergency alert involves everything from email, texts and social media postings to sirens and alert boxes in each classroom that holds more than 25 students.
There also are outdoor and indoor emergency call boxes throughout each campus that go directly to the Emergency Communications Center.
“There’s always the balance of not wanting to create unnecessary panic and fear when we’ve got the situation contained and under control,” he said. “In municipal law enforcement, if something bad happens, you respond and you investigate.
“In campus law enforcement, if something bad happens you have to immediately make an assessment of whether or not that requires the community being notified, and oftentimes that sounds easy, but it’s difficult.”