Lessons Learned at Virginia Tech: Preventing Future Tragedies
It’s been eight years since a disturbed student went on a shooting spree at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people before taking his own life. Since then, colleges and universities have made significant changes to prevent future tragedies.
Since the shootings at Virginia Tech, a cottage industry has sprung up around campus security.
“These are challenging times for colleges and universities. Crime on campus is more concerning than ever, tragic shootings, student suicides, injuries, suspicious behaviors, concerning events are coming from every direction.”
Companies like this one promote high tech solutions to the risk of violent attacks -- making it easier for students, faculty and staff to report suspicious behavior, and allowing schools to warn and advise people of dangerous situations. Tech itself came up with more than 240 ideas for making its campus safer, according to spokesman Mark Owczarski.
"Things like removing the left-sided hardware of double doors so that you couldn’t chain them closed. We added locks to classrooms so that people couldn’t come in - you could lock yourself in. We added message boards. We will use Twitter, we will use Facebook . We will use any form of communication. We have outdoor sirens, sand within moments, depending on your circumstances -- whether you’re asleep in bed, or on a bus, in a classroom or walking across our drill field, you will receive that alert probably within the first 30-60 seconds of it being sent."
Even smaller schools like the University of Mary Washington have elaborate systems for warning students of any serious threat.
"The system can even capture campus network computers, so if you’re sitting at your computer and you have headphones on and your phone's not available, your screen can be overtaken by the university," says Doug Searcy, UMW’s Vice President for Student Affairs.
But the biggest change was ordered by Virginia’s legislature. All public universities in this state must have a Threat Assessment team. At UVA, Dean of Students Allen Groves the composition of such committees, which meet regularly on campus.
“Around the table you had the counseling center, you had experts in school violence, legal counsel, you had the police, student affairs, all these people around the table now talking about cases and deciding what should be the right intervention and follow up.”
Tech, UVA and other schools are doing more training with faculty members on how to spot worrisome behavior, and reaching out to students. Tim Davis is Director of UVA’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
"Not all students are going to come to the counseling center. We see about 9% of the student body every year. We know that we can reach all the students, but it means that we’ve got to be getting out of our offices. We’ve got to be getting out on grounds, initiating the contact with them in order to have that impact."
Virginia Tech makes a point of keeping families in the loop.
"It’s important for us to be partners with the students and with their families to help manage the things that they need to manage beyond homework, tests, exams and all of that," says Owczarski.
And at Virginia Commonwealth, contact between freshmen and administrators is mandatory. Here’s Vice Provost Chuck Clink.
"We use intrusive advising. First year students have to meet with their academic advisor, so when students are having difficulty there is something who can direct them to resources."
Many schools have added mental health professionals and police officers. Virginia Tech became the first campus in the nation to be certified by an independent non-profit organization that established rigorous national standards for emergency planning. And Virginia is the only state in the nation to require Threat Assessment teams at all levels of the educational system. Still, experts say serious risks remain. We’ll look at the challenges ahead in our next report.