Preventing the Next Campus Shooting

By Matthew Harwood

At 7:15 a.m. on April 16, Virginia Tech Police received an emergency call alerting them to go to a dorm room in West Ambler Johnston Residence Hall. Once there, officers found two bodies in a fourth floor dorm room; they turned out to be students Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher, both of whom had been killed by multiple gunshots.

That shooting was labeled "an isolated incident, domestic in nature."

Two hours and 11 minutes later an e-mail was sent by university police to faculty, staff, and students. It said simply that a "shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston [Residence Hall] earlier this morning. Police are on scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case."

That was 9:26 a.m. At 9:45 a.m., police received another emergency call to respond to Norris Hall, an engineering building north of the crime scene. Police arrived to find the front doors chained shut. By the time it was over, student Cho Seung-Hui had murdered 30 more people and ended his own life in what became the worst school massacre in U.S. history.

Shootings on U.S. campuses are rare. Among the 2,618 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the United States, there have been only six shooter incidents since 2000. But even that low number is too many. The question now before university and security professionals is: What policies and procedures can reduce the threat of such an incident and how can institutions best prepare to respond if one does occur?

The massacre at Virginia Tech has once again brought campus security under intense scrutiny. Though it is still early to draw specific lessons from how VT handled the incident, it is useful to look generally at policies and procedures in place at other universities as well as at advances in technology that facilitate emergency communications.



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