We have met the enemy and he is us
On this day in 2007, the country was rocked by the shooting that occurred on the campus of Virginia tech. The shooting left 33 people dead including the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. The Virginia shooting was one of the deadliest mass shootings in the United States.
In February and March of 2007 Cho, who had obviously planned the attack for some time, had purchased several guns. At approximately 7:15 am on April 16th he began his attack on the campus by shooting a student and a resident advisor at a dormitory. The initial reaction to the shooting by law enforcement was to assume that this was a domestic homicide and believed that the shooter was no longer in the area.
At that time, the university did not undertake security measures or notify students of the shooting for more than two hours. Cho mailed a package to NBC in New York City. The contents included a manifesto, photographs of him holding various weapons, and a DVD featuring short videos of Cho. Armed with two guns and some 400 rounds of ammunition. Cho resumed his attack later, killing 30 people at Norris Hall. At approximately 10:00 am police stormed the building, at which point Cho took his own life. In addition to the 33 deaths, 17 people suffered gunshot wounds and a number of others were injured trying to escape, notably jumping from windows.
Cho, who was born in South Korea but later moved to the United States, was a senior at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (commonly known as Virginia Tech). It was discovered that Cho had a history of mental illness. In November 2005 he received the first of several consultations with the university’s counseling center. The following month he was briefly held at a psychiatric hospital after a roommate feared he was suicidal. While there Cho was diagnosed with a mood disorder. Following his release, a court found him to be a danger to himself, and he was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment. University counselors noted that he was “troubled,” but he expressed no homicidal thoughts. After 2005 Cho had no known contact with any mental health professionals.
In 2008 Virginia reached an $11 million settlement with many of the victims’ families. However, two families rejected the offer and sued the state and its employees at Virginia Tech—which was a public institution—for wrongful death, claiming the university failed to promptly issue a campus-wide alert. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in 2013 that Virginia Tech was not negligent.
According to Philip Schaenman, Staff Director of the Virginia Tech Shooting Review Panel, the police response to the shooting was an excellent example of multi-jurisdictional active shooter training. According to Schaenman, the mistakes were made by the school officials who failed to send out an emergency, campus-wide alert that a gunman was on the loose following the first attack.
Furthermore, due to restrictive privacy laws, the university lacked a “fusion center” that could have effectively processed the shooter's paper trail of red flags, including reports of suicidal tendencies and disturbing psychological displays, in order to alert parents and police.
Virginia Tech is what is referred to as a “horizontal campus”, in other words, it is sprawled out in a more rural area with a campus population of 35,000 and contains 131 buildings with no safety or perimeter fence.
To give you some perspective, with a campus population of 35,000 people, Virginia Tech is literally a city the size of Joplin, Missouri.
At the time of the massacre, university officials were upgrading the campus alert system to include sirens and speakers; however, on the day of the shooting the only alert systems in place were rudimentary phone trees and email.
At 7:20 the morning of April 16th, Cho walked into the West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory room and shot 19-year-old student. A resident advisor who responded to disturbance calls (according to the panel report, the gunfire “sounded like someone fell out of bed”) was also fatally shot with rounds from a 9 mm pistol.
If you look at the graphics I am providing here, you can see how truly massive this dormitory is and its location from center of campus. At 7:20 in the morning, it is easy to see how anyone, let a lone a student could have gained access to the building undetected as there was nothing to detect! Cho was just another student walking on campus. Remember, this was a Monday morning so while we are looking at pictures of an empty campus here, there is a population the size of Del Rio, Texas!
Campus police and the executive V.P. of Virginia Tech were alerted to the situation minutes after the dormitory killings took place. Based on a preliminary interview, officials concluded that the incident was domestic in nature and that the prime suspect had been identified and was no longer a threat to campus.
One major issue was that campus police did not have the power to send out alerts themselves. All messages had to go through the university officials, who had taken flack for an earlier, arguably over-zealous response to reports of a prowler on campus. (Nine months prior, the administration responded to reports of an intruder by calling in a SWAT, who mistakenly stormed the student center. The incident created a dust-up of panic and negative publicity that the Va. Tech V.P. was not eager to repeat.)
Whether or not an alert at this juncture would have made a difference in the outcome is a point of controversy, but if I am going to compare population to population, I can prove that the tornado sirens that sounded on May 22, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri saved hundreds of lives if not thousands. Alerts work. Period.
There never should have been a moment of hesitation on the part of school officials (who are not security experts) when it came to sounding alarms and truthfully, campus law and safety officials should have been in charge of sending alerts in the first place. Why hire people that are experts in their field only to make their decisions for them?
We have seen this before when it comes to severe weather. Local channels make decisions every day as to whether or not to interrupt shows with watched and warnings because of the backlash they receive from the public. I clearly remember one evening in Nebraska when our TV station news team made the decision to warn people of an impending tornadic storm only to receive hate mail for weeks about the interruption of Wheel of Fortune!
If you are going to allow administration personnel that specialize in political moves and financial decisions to make split second emergency management decisions, you will always receive a result that is politically and financially motivated. These people are not wrong in how they make the decisions, it is wrong to allow them to be the ones that make those decisions. It was said by Schaenman that the Vice president of the school “did a risk analysis in his head”.
If you know anything about me, this fact, in my mind, is at the center of it all. Why is there a multiple step process from threat detection to alert? Why are so many people involved? How do you do a risk analysis in your head when you are not on scene and do not have any of the facts? Is it not easier to send out an alert and apologize rather than not send one out and face the reality of a day like April 16, 2007?
I am a strong believer in not lying to the public. There was no reason to alert the campus population as a whole regarding an active shooter who might be crazy and might be armed with more than one weapon and may be running around looking for another building or target. There was, however every reason to alert the campus population to tell them what WAS known and that included that there had been a shooting on campus, that the whereabouts of the shooter or shooters was unknown at this time and that everyone should be on the alert as law enforcement clears not only the scene but begins to confirm the shooter is no longer on campus.
There was no reason to lie or guess, but there was definitely enough evidence and information to put out an alert. Unfortunately, choosing neither resulted in a lot more deaths that day.
As for a lock-down, the order would have had to more resemble a “shelter-in-place” order as the campus has over 500 doors in the 131 buildings. With a bustling campus of thousands, the only proper order would have been a “shelter-in-place” order because just too much of the campus is easily navigated.
If we can imagine, the situation at first resembled a shooting in any small town. News of a shooter on the run would be broadcast, the neighborhood around the shooting would be locked down by law enforcement and the investigation would begin as other officers looked for the shooter. You would not necessarily lock-down the entire town, but again, the lack of communication from the school to the residents of the “town” could have created an alertness that could have been an integral part of stopping Cho when he started back up again.
Cho carried chains in his backpack in order to lock campus building doors from the inside, which he did immediately after entering the academic building Norris Hall at 9:15-9:30 a.m.
A few students came into contact with the chains on their way in, and, assuming it was construction, crawled in through a ground floor window. There is so much wrong here that I do not know where to begin.
While we hold tornado drills in schools, we are still quite lack in this country when it comes to active shooter trainings. We are afraid that they will scare students or children, we avoid them until they are mandatory and there are rarely assemblies held. Our approach to active shooter training is to select “in-service days” in order to train staff without students around and this usually results in Sophomores that have no idea what looks normal and what doesn’t.
I am a strong believer in mandatory awareness assemblies at high schools and higher education learning facilities and just such a thing could have made a difference here! If they had received an alert earlier, perhaps seeing the chains on the door would have fallen into the category of “Call and report anything strange or out of place” instead of just becoming an irritating obstacle that caused the students to climb through a window.
It is said that other students, upon hearing gunshots, dismissed the noise as construction noise simply because they were never told to be ON THE ALERT.
The shooter, who stayed completely silent throughout the massacre, began walking down the hall, entering classrooms, and indiscriminately shooting everybody he could at point blank range. Ten students successfully jumped out of windows and onto the grass, but many classrooms led out to concrete, making this escape impossible.
Students barricaded themselves against Cho from inside the classrooms. Those who managed to use their hands and feet to barricade the door around the periphery survived. (Cho attempted to shove the door open and shoot around door handle, but soon gave up.) In other classrooms, those who instead braced their bodies against the door were shot dead.
Within eleven minutes, 45 people had been shot. 45 people that never knew there was a shooter on the loose.
The first call for help to go through went to the Blacksburg Police Department at 9:41 a.m. The dispatcher did not recognize the name or location of “Norris Hall” so she transferred the call to campus law enforcement.
Three minutes later, Blacksburg and Virginia Tech police arrived at Norris Hall. They attempted to gain entry through three different doors, however, failed to shoot the chains off. Eventually police are able to shoot open a key lock to a fourth door and follow the sound of the shots to the second floor.
To avoid potential confusion, one team of police proceeded rapidly to the second floor landing, while a second team headed up the opposite stairwell to the third floor. Both teams started clearing rooms.
At 10:08 a.m. a deceased male believed to be the shooter was found with self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head.
College campuses are like small communities as I have said. They often have their own police and fire departments, an army of workers who maintain its buildings and infrastructure, and thousands of residents, also known as students. Just like any community, a college also needs its own alert system which can quickly warn its residents of threats or provide less critical information in an efficient manner.
There are still some campuses without elaborate or highly technical alerts systems but a majority have incredible systems in place capable of sending alerts in several different forms. What is sad is that Virginia Tech had a gun it never un-holstered.
The Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act -- passed in 1990 -- requires all colleges and universities participating in federal student financial aid programs to warn the campus community in a timely manner about ongoing security threats. The U.S. Department of Education has so far declined to define what constitutes timely reports, but the fact that the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States participate in federal student financial aid programs means they're also subject to this requirement.
In the past, colleges and universities typically relied on standard, low-tech mass notification systems, such as series of loudspeakers, sirens or intercoms, as well as campus media, such as radio or television stations. Advancements in communications technology, however, now offer additional ways to pass the word during an emergency with the most common being text alerts.
While I am not keen on technology, I will admit that technology has given us the edge when it comes to alerting, unless of course, you do not use it. As always in my blogs, I would like to recognize that too often we are the victims of our own design so I will close today’s educational rant by reminding you that Americans still have a long way to go.
I place into evidence the issue of one tornado siren in Colbert County, Alabama, a siren purposely disabled by local officials because residents complained about the noise it made. Six residents to be exact.