Yesterday, the courts determined that Virginia Tech officials did not act fast enough or provide enough information on April 16, 2007 to prevent the deaths of 33 people (the entire article can be viewed here). Next month will commemorate the fifth anniversary of the largest massacre on a college campus in our nation’s history, and this has other colleges wondering how this will affect their emergency response.
I have mixed feelings about the ruling. It is easy to ‘Monday morning quarterback’ any situation and criticize how poorly it was handled once you are removed from the immediate stress of the moment. I have confronted enough incidents, granted none as severe as Virginia Tech, to know that you do what you think is needed as it happens and then debrief what could be done differently after the crisis is resolved. No matter how much training responders have, nothing compares to the actual incident; sometimes things go wrong. Unfortunately, when things went wrong the morning of April 16, people died.
A year ago, when my institution had an alleged gunman on our campus, the college immediately sent out email and text messages alerting everyone to stay away from our academic quad. Within a few hours, the video that prompted the lock-down was released to the media and questioned whether there was even a gun to begin with—the object under the person’s arm looked more like a lacrosse stick. However, university officials, aware of what can occur if timely notifications are not sent, erred on the side of caution. However, to this day, people still argue the alert was sent prematurely. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Jury verdict or not, nothing will change the events of April 16 or the incredible sadness I feel for the Virginia Tech community. I was relatively new to Residential Life when the world learned of this tragedy, and the terror I felt at the prospect of confronting and surviving this type of violence was very real for the first few years. Sadly, for our generation, Virginia Tech will be synonymous with mass destruction and loss of life, just like Oklahoma City and Columbine. My thoughts and sympathies go out to all the families who lost someone on that fateful day. Hopefully, this verdict will ensure this never happens again.
(PS: After writing this post, I found this article about Rochester Institute for Technology's lock-down after a student was seen carrying what appeared to be a rifle. In the end, police discovered it was the handle of an umbrella. Although students and staff have already created t-shirts and Facebook groups teasing how seriously it was taken, university officials responded in a way that is now expected of college campuses.)