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Virginia Tech Panels Urge Reform

August 23, 2007

Three internal panels looking primarily at how Virginia Tech University can protect its students in the wake of the April 16 massacre released their reports Wednesday, recommending additional security measures and more help in dealing with troubled students.

The forward-spinning and uncritical nature of the reports is hardly surprising given that Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech's president, formed the committees to review the university’s communications and security operations, and to assess the interactions among various departments on the campus, including academic affairs and student counseling services. He directed the panels not to focus on the attacks or the immediate aftermath, saying that those topics would be better addressed by an external review. The internal reports come just days before The Virginia Tech Review Panel, created by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), is scheduled to release its findings on the university's response.

None of the university's reports refer by name Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech senior who killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself. Nor do they cover the much-discussed decision by officials to keep the campus open after the first shooting.

“This review is not intended to be an investigation or a forensic analysis, but rather a close look at the university's existing policies, processes, systems and resources through the new prism of the 4/16 tragedy,” Steger said in a news conference to introduce the reports.

A nonprofit advocacy group, Security On Campus, has filed a complaint asking the U.S. Department of Education to determine whether Virginia Tech followed a federal law called the Clery Act that mandates prompt warnings to students when there is imminent danger on campus. Family members of some of the victims say that campus officials could have done more to prevent the later shootings at Norris Hall by locking down the campus after Cho shot his first two victims at the West Ambler Johnston dorm more than two hours earlier.

Steger, during the news conference, once again defended the university's response on the day of the shootings, saying that the phrase 'two-hour gap' is misleading. “We did notify students by automated messages and by people knocking on doors. Police surrounded the building and we stopped trash collection [in order to look for any weapons.] One of the things we’ve struggled with is hindsight bias.... We were doing the best we could and trying to make it a secure campus."

Steger said that the university's decision to keep the campus open reflects the consensus of law-enforcement experts that a "lock down" is not feasible on a campus of Virginia Tech's size. "However," Steger added, "it is certainly feasible to secure or 'harden' individual buildings and other facilities."

To that end, the university has already responded to one of the security report's recommendations by adding interior door locks in many of its classrooms. It has also begun to put in place a new emergency alert system that sends out text messages to students' cell phones. James A. Hyatt, the university's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said that thousands of students and university employees have already signed up for the service.

But the committee's report points out that the crisis and response to the attacks placed a great deal of stress on the university's communications systems, resulting in the inability of some to make or receive cell phone calls on April 16.

Erv Blythe, Virginia Tech's vice president for information technology who led the committee on communications infrastructure, said upgrades to the overall communications system would have made the hours and days after the attacks "less hectic." His committee promotes, for instance, using a threat analysis system and including the student-run radio facilities in the university's alert system.

Some of the other recommendations in the report on campus safety appear to be direct responses to the April attack. The panel calls for all hardware on perimeter doors be moved to prevent them from being chained. Cho did just that in the minutes before the Norris shootings.

Among the other security ideas designed to improve the campus-wide alert system: video surveillance at many points across campus, LCD message boards inside campus buildings that are capable of carrying messages from the central administration, and a centrally controlled electronic card key access system for many academic and administrative facilities that would allow individual and groups of buildings to be locked remotely by police. The report also advocates a "people locator" system that lets students tell others of their whereabouts, and the use of electronic banners in classrooms that would alert students to emergencies.

Many of the questions posed to Steger and other college officials Wednesday involved changes to Virginia Tech's student health services. The report on interdepartmental relationships says that a new structure is needed to complement the work of existing counseling units. It recommends that the university add to its "Care Team" -- the central group that identifies and responds to at-risk students -- a Virginia Tech law enforcement officer and the director for the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities as permanent members. The existing group includes representatives from student affairs and counseling services.

As a companion, the report calls for the creation of another team that would handle the most complex cases of troubled students. Officials assigned to the group would write reports on the distressed student and intervene when necessary and legal permissible.

Increasing the number of counselors available and establishing a central university contact who has a comprehensive picture of distressed students who have been treated for help is essential, the report notes.

“Simply put, we must have a more coordinated system for managing the needs of students at risk," Steger said. "This includes better interdepartmental communication."

Vincent J. Bove, a spokesman for several of the families of victims, said anything short of the report "admitting to gross negligence" on behalf of the university would be unacceptable to the families he represents.

"Everything this report is addressing, on top of it being too late after April 16, is about eight years too late," he said. "It should have been a focus of Virginia Tech and every school and campus after Columbine. [The leadership] has failed in the crisis of the day of, and in how they are managing it now."

 

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