NEWS

Hard Lessons

By Laura Spadanuta (print edition)

 

On April 2, 2012, One Goh, a former student at Oikos University, in Oakland, California, opened fire on the campus, killing seven people and wounding three others. That incident happened nearly five years to the day after the April 16, 2007, mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), in Blacksburg, Virginia. It was a sad reminder that, though rare, shootings are a threat to universities large and small, and school authorities must be prepared to handle them.

In the Virginia Tech tragedy, a current student first shot two students in a dormitory; a few hours later, he entered an academic building and opened fire in several classrooms before turning the gun on himself. Thirty-three people were killed in the massacre, including the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho. The Virginia Tech community has been through much since that day. It has also attempted to learn important lessons to limit the chances of a similar tragedy in the future. Other campuses have taken note. Ahead is a look at some of the long-term lessons and evolving best practices for communications, sheltering in place, and threat assessment teams.

Communications

A key factor in the Virginia Tech shooting was that the gunman first murdered two students in the dorms in the morning. The university took more than an hour after that first incident to warn students that there had been a shooting on campus. The school was ultimately judged by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to have violated a provision in the applicable law, the Clery Act, which calls for “timely warnings” when reportable crimes occur on campus. Some examples of reportable Clery Act crimes are robbery, murder, and assault.

Virginia Tech officials disagreed with that judgment. According to Mark Owczarski, Virginia Tech’s director of news and information, while there was no clear definition of what constituted a “timely” warning at the time, precedent and DOE guidelines had those warnings coming out within 48 hours of the incident. An hour seemed reasonable in that context. Moreover, the Virginia Tech warnings were not more immediate because universities were expected to first determine the facts and then put as much information into the warning as possible, asserted Virginia Tech in its defense.

The reason for the delay was not accepted initially, and the school was fined $55,000. But in March 2012, the school got some vindication when the DOE’s chief administrative judge overturned the DOE fine. However, also in March, a civil trial jury awarded $4 million to two families of Virginia Tech victims who accused the school of negligence.

(To continue reading "Hard Lessons," our August 2012 cover story, please click here)


 photo by indichick7/flickr

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