Mass Notification Lessons Learned from Virginia Tech

U.S. Department of Education report highlights new precedents that campuses must consider.

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The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) released its Final Program Review Determination (FPRD) or findings for the aftermath of the 2007 shootings that occurred at Virginia Tech in a 28-page report. The Dec. 9 report focused on compliance with certain provisions of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act).

The FPRD report found that Virginia Tech failed to comply with timely warning issuance and policy provisions.

I am not going to focus on what happened specifically at Virginia Tech in 2007.  Rather I will focus on what we all need to be doing today (2010 and beyond) as a result of the new statutory requirements and precedents outlined in the report. There have been numerous incidents all across the country since 2007 that present opportunities for improvement.   The DOE FPRD report tells us what we can likely expect if our programs are audited following a crisis or complaint.  It is a must-read for all campus officials.

HEOA Doesn’t Define Important Terms

Some of the findings in the FPRD report are somewhat problematic and unrealistic for emergency management officials working in higher education nationwide. However, the report clearly articulates that we must have our act together. I have learned there are no absolutes in crisis; we do the best we can with the information we have at the time. We should always try to rule in favor of safety. If we do speculate, we do so for the greater good.

When the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) was released, it was somewhat flawed. The HEOA statute and guidance does not define “significant emergency” or “dangerous situation” and how these two terms correlate with an immediate threat to the health and safety of students, faculty or employees on campus. The DOE has still not released new guidance (proposed for release in October 2010).  It’s anybody’s guess as to what constitutes an emergency under the current statute. What we do know is when we are deemed to have acted improperly, campuses could be subject to investigation.

The DOE FPRD appears to ignore factual errors documented by Virginia Tech in the official university response. DOE acknowledges, “statements made in the program review report are not supported by the Review Panel” (FPRD page 19 - last paragraph), yet allowed those statements to stand as a basis to support some of the findings.

What Is an “Ongoing Threat”?

Perhaps the most startling finding was the opinion of the DOE, that an unknown shooter might be loose on campus made the situation an ongoing threat at that time, and it remained a threat (ongoing) until the shooter was apprehended.” FPRD Page 11 (mid page, end of paragraph).

This finding seems to imply that any suspect who remains at-large following a violent (on-campus) crime now constitutes an ongoing threat to the campus community. Or does this only apply to a homicide? It would appear given the new direction, anyone who commits a violent crime using a firearm or deadly weapon should be considered an ongoing threat until they are apprehended, since it could be liberally assumed to be an immediate threat to the health and safety of students, faculty or employees on campus.

The report also finds concerns about not having a police department representative or the mass warning issuing authority assigned to the campus policy group (page 25). The VTPD was assigned as the mass warning notification authority; but had deployed its staff to the scene (as it is expected to), because that was their primary mission.

Other Issues With the HEOA

  • HEOA does not require that someone is injured (to trigger a mass warning) only that there is “an immediate threat to the health and safety of students, faculty, or employees on campus.” Thus, campuses must quickly define the threat.
  • HEOA does not require the entire campus be at risk. An event in a single building or office could trigger a mass warning.
  • It is essential that campus mass notification policy define what is “significant” and what is “a dangerous situation.” This creates subjective policy standards for every campus.
  • All that is needed is a confirmation of significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health and safety of students, faculty or employees occurring on campus.

When to Issue an Alert Is Confusing

It’s that simple, or is it?

In a recent campus crisis where a multiple shooting occurred, the incident was contained to one building on campus. The campus spokesperson, in defending a delayed mass notification stated, “There was no threat to the rest of campus.”

In retrospect, the campus probably should have issued an immediate advisory. This situation threatened the lives of everyone in an on-campus building (students, faculty and staff). It met the intent of the Clery Act and HEOA. More importantly, it scared the hell out of everyone on campus. Also, for a period of time after the shootings, there were additional suspects being sought and detained. That meant the immediate threat and situation was fluid and containment was not known.  

The FPRD seems to reinforce these issues as a new precedent. If violent suspects are being sought and are not detained, campuses must issue a mass warning or timely warning. Campuses need to understand the timely warning statute under the Clery Act.

Decision-Making Process Must be Vetted

Decisions to issue mass warnings should be pre-approved (whenever possible), but this isn’t always happening. Personnel assigned to issue mass warnings should assess all of the potential situations when a mass warning is appropriate, and this process should be vetted long before the decision to issue a mass warning occurs. There is enough stress associated with mass warnings. Decisions associated with the activation and delivery must be thought out well in advance.  


David Burns
With more than 30 years experience, David is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) currently administering the emergency management program at Santa Clara University in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area's Silicon Valley. David managed the UCLA Office of Emergency Management for seven years and pioneered the development of the campus' award-winning "BruinAlert" system. David championed development of emergency plans, policies and procedures in the aftermath of Virginia Tech in 2007 and consults higher education institutions on emergency management issues. David is a subject matter expert in mass casualty incident management, emergency notification systems, comprehensive plan development, emergency organization, EOC design and operations, crisis communications, threat and vulnerability assessment, disaster recovery, grant administration and auditing. In 2009, David and other campus emergency managers provided consult in the development of the first incident management course developed by FEMA/EMI specifically for higher education (IS-100HE, Introduction to the Incident Command System (ICS) for Higher Education). Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.
Contact David Burns: burns.gsmblog@gmail.com
Campus Command Post, Clery Act, Common Alerting Protocol CAP, Emergency Alerts, Emergency Management, Higher Education Opportunity Act HEOA, Mass Notification

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