Safety Zone: Initial Lessons Learned From the Virginia Tech Tragedy

I would like to provide some preliminary thoughts on the Virginia Tech massacre. Please keep in mind that at press time we can only make a few general comments until more facts are available.

One striking difference between this attack and those before is the manner in which some media went into attack mode early in the crisis. Although it is common to assign blame after such an incident, the intensity, pervasiveness and speed of onset was faster than in past school-related attacks. In my more than 100 interviews with the press, most reporters were professional, objective and willing to listen, but a number pushed for statements harshly criticizing the president and police chief of Virginia Tech even after repeated refusals.

Campus organizations not using proven techniques to avert campus weapons assaults will remain vulnerable to this type of media attack in the future regardless of the actual prevention measures in place. Every superintendent, hospital CEO, college or university president and top campus safety executive should be fully prepared to demonstrate that best practices are in use.

NIMS Is Now More Important Than Ever
Operationally, this Virginia Tech tragedy reinforces the need for all CEOs, department heads, key managers and crisis team members to receive formal training in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Organizations lacking this component cannot make key decisions quickly and accurately enough during a catastrophe.

Campus leaders must remember that if they choose to personally handle media after a major crisis, the load will be so heavy as to neutralize their ability to provide leadership to their organization. In this case, a competent second in command should be the incident commander. Press conferences should be regularly scheduled, short and controlled by public safety officials, not the press corps.

April’s massacre also demonstrates the need for every campus to have a distinct plan in place for each of the four phases of emergency management. In ensuing litigation, Virginia Tech will likely need to demonstrate that it used best practices to address all four phases of its legal and moral obligation to protect the campus community.

The ability to communicate effectively and rapidly is another crucial element to the successful resolution of any crisis. While I am not yet convinced that prompt notification of the first shooting would have changed the outcome, there are numerous situations, including tornados and chemical accidents, where the inability to provide prompt emergency notification could result in the deaths of hundreds of people.

One concern I have is that it appears at least some faculty were unable to lock their doors once they knew there was shooting in the building. Any K-12 or college building with classroom doors that won’t lock are patently unsafe.

Countless sexual assaults, thefts and other incidents in unlocked classrooms make it necessary for educators to be able to lock and unlock their own doors. While some higher-ed officials argue it is too much trouble to provide keys or access control cards for all faculty, the incident at Virginia Tech should put that argument to rest.

Apply the All-Hazards Approach to Safety
Although the Virginia Tech massacre was truly tragic and disturbing, campus safety officials must resist the public pressure to expend all available resources on the prevention of shootings to the detriment of other measures. The reality remains that violence is not a leading cause of death on our campuses. We must remember that there may be bigger hazards present.

Still, campuses must be vigilant. We can surmise from experience in the K-12 arena that there will likely be copycat attempts on other campuses, particularly now while the media broadcasts and rebroadcasts the killer’s written and taped messages complete with gory detail.

Fortunately, hundreds of planned K-12 school shootings and bombings have been averted through increased vigilance and application of proven techniques, many of which are also well suited for colleges and hospitals. It is possible for campus administrators to overcome their vulnerabilities while meeting the legal and moral obligation to provide a safe campus environment.

An internationally recognized authority on campus safety and the author of 19 books on the topic, Michael Dorn is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. Dorn, a member of the Campus Safety Advisory Council, works with a team of campus safety experts to make campuses safer around the globe through Jane’s offices in nine countries. He can be reached at schoolsafety@janes.com.

For the unabridged version of this article, please refer to the May/June 2007 issue of Campus Safety magazine. To subscribe, go to https://secure2.bobitweb.com/campussafetymagazine/subscribe/.

About the Author

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Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non profit campus safety center. During his 30 year campus safety career, Michael has served as a university police officer, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. He served as a school system police chief for ten years before being appointed the lead expert for the nation's largest state government K-20 school safety center. The author of 25 books on school safety, his work has taken him to Central America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. Michael welcomes comments, questions or requests for clarification at mike@weakfish.org. 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.

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