Virginia Tech | In case of emergency: VT tragedy spurs analysis of SU's safety procedures


Virginia Tech | In case of emergency: VT tragedy spurs analysis of SU's safety procedures


By: Melanie Hicken
Posted: 4/26/07

April 16, 2007. Another day to mourn. Another day Americans will never forget.

But while the Virginia Tech community begins the healing process after the largest massacre in U.S. history, college campuses across the country are beginning a process as well - a reevaluation of protocols and procedures in place to help prevent or minimize such a tragedy.

"Monday's incident changes everything for universities around the country," said Interim Chief Tony Callisto, of Syracuse University's Public Safety.

It's been a busy 10 days for Callisto.

Interviews. Meetings. Phone calls. E-mails. All asking: What would we do if it happened here?

SU was one of many college communities across the nation that were jarred by this scary realization - that something so violent, so tragic could occur on a campus just like its own.

"I think we all know that this could have happened anywhere," said Dean of Hendricks Chapel Thomas Wolfe, who co-chairs the Critical Incident Management Team (CMIT).

Within hours of the breaking news of the shootings, the SU Logistics Committee and the CIMT, two university bodies that help manage emergency and crisis situations, convened to discuss what this tragedy meant for SU and how the campus should respond.

The Logistics Committee handles technical and physical needs in an emergency situation, while the CIMT manages all human responses.

The CIMT and Public Safety will study the Virginia Tech incident to help enhance SU's year of task force examinations dedicated to keeping the school continuously up to date in various areas including campus safety and communication in the case of an emergency, said Chancellor Nancy Cantor in an interview.

"I have asked the CIMT and the Department of Public Safety to quickly analyze what we currently know about the Virginia Tech incident," said Cantor in an e-mail sent to the campus community on April 17. "That team will continue to meet with me and the University's leadership in the coming days to examine our policies and protocols, and determine how we can learn from this tragedy."

Safety first

The Virginia Tech shootings exposed the vulnerability of college campuses as opposed to the more contained high school setting. The Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999, led to the idea of a lockdown procedure in case of such an emergency.

And many Virginia Tech students and families questioned why their campus was not locked down after the first shooting.

But for an open campus community - as opposed to a contained high school building - a lockdown is easier said than done, Callisto said.

"I think any open university probably doesn't have a solid procedure for a lockdown because it's a community environment," he said. "It's a community of buildings, so we need to come up with a community response to this kind of a challenge instead of a single institutional response."

Currently, Callisto said, SU has two main procedures to be used in the case of emergency depending on the situation: to have people evacuate or to tell people to stay in their buildings.

Additionally, all Public Safety officers are trained in "active shooter protocol," a procedure developed nationwide in 2003 partly as a result of the Columbine shootings, Callisto said. Prior to this training, officers would have to create a perimeter and wait for SWAT officers before entering a building with an active shooter, which could take more than an hour.

Now, the first four arriving officers at the scene do an immediate assessment of the situation and enter the building.


"A few years ago, the Department of Public Safety was an unarmed, primarily security force that had limited ability to really manage a problem of this magnitude," Callisto said. "And today, with the active shooter training and the police academy, today within seconds you have eight to 10 Public Safety officers working any shift. Four of them can be there within seconds."

In October 2003, New York Gov. George Pataki signed legislation that allowed SU to upgrade Public Safety officers to peace officer status. In February 2004, the University Senate made a recommendation to begin the training program, which then-Chancellor Kenneth Shaw accepted. This training program was completed in December, so all officers can now carry a weapon and use force if necessary.

Prior to peace status, they could carry only batons and pepper spray.

Although he said he is confident SU is prepared to react in the case of emergency, Callisto added the university is currently examining additional safety and communication measures as a part of a comprehensive plan to increase safety capabilities.

Some things being looked into include: surveillance systems, turning the campus blue lights into loudspeaker-like devices and the ability to simulcast emergency notification to all university radio channels. Other processes are also being considered.

As early as Monday afternoon, Callisto had joined an e-mail listserv of law enforcement administrators to discuss the Virginia Tech incident and what can be learned from it.

"This is an opportunity," Callisto said. "It's a tragic event, but it will be an opportunity for campus law enforcement to improve our ability to respond to these kinds of things."

To text, or not to text

One of the most controversial issues to come out of the Virginia Tech incident is how and when universities choose to notify students of a shooting or similar violent incident on campus.

Although the Virginia Tech Police Department received a 911 call about shootings in a residence hall at 7:15 a.m., e-mail notification was not sent to students and faculty until 9:26 a.m.

A second 911 call was phoned in at 9:45 a.m. Another shooting had occurred. This time, e-mail notification was sent within five minutes.

Campus officials told the media they had reason to believe the first incident was an isolated domestic dispute, but many have still questioned why notification was not sent out earlier and why classes were not canceled.

"I don't understand their logic behind that," a Virginia Tech sophomore told The Los Angeles Times. "It does bother me. I feel like a lot of lives could have been saved and a lot fewer injuries."

SU currently sends out e-mails to the campus community about campus safety incidents or important information within the hour, in accordance with the national Clery Act, Callisto said.

The Clery Act was passed in Congress in 1990 and requires colleges and universities to issue annual reports on crime on campus as well as on security procedures. The law also requires that campuses provide "timely warning" when a crime poses a serious threat to students and employees. The law does not, however, provide a specific time frame that must be followed.

At SU, "typically, the current process is when we know about an incident, usually within an hour, you know about it," Callisto said.

But Virginia Tech has shown, he said, that even an hour may not be soon enough, and that this should perhaps be modified in extreme cases.

Additionally, the university realizes e-mail notification may not be the most efficient method - especially in the case of an immediate threat to campus, Callisto said.

For the past few weeks - before the Virginia Tech incident even occurred - a university task force has been looking into the possibility of a text message notification program. Students and faculty would be able to register their cell phone number and SU officials would be able to send out a notification blast to all registered phones.

Cell phone notification is "the model that really works for technology today" since many students are much more likely to instantly receive a text than an e-mail, Callisto said.

Many schools are looking into these text message notification programs, as reported in the April 27 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Schools such as University of Maryland-Easter Shore, Monmouth University in New Jersey and Butler University, among others, already use such programs.

SU sophomore Catherine Long said she thought a text message notification program would be a much better way to immediately contact students.

"Not all people check their e-mail at all times. I could go days without checking my e-mail," said Long, advertising major. "But everyone has their cell phone with them on most of the time. And they are checking it all the time."

Finding a balance

In the light of such a tragedy, people often look to tightened security measures, and safety at SU will of course be examined, officials said. But many SU officials expressed a need for a balance between security and the openness that college campuses pride themselves on.

"Are we going to choose to live in fear constantly and build walls? Or are we going to live in an open society?" Wolfe said. "But how do we live smart in that open society?

I think that is going to be one of the big challenges in higher education because one of the values of higher education is it is an accessible community."

Cantor echoed Wolfe's thoughts.

"At the heart of what makes colleges and universities great is their openness and their engagement with the world and with each other," she said. "You don't want something that isolates the campus from that flow of information, the flow of interaction and the flow of people ... On the other hand, you obviously want to create a community that feels safe and comfortable so it can do its best work."

Thus looking for a balance is key, said many SU officials.

As SU officials at administrators at campuses across the country strive for that balance in the aftermath of this national tragedy, the Virginia Tech campus will simply strive for normalcy - to be the way it was before.

The way it was before April 16, 2007.


Original Source:<a href=>The Daily Orange - April 26, 2007</a>


Melanie Hicken




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Melanie Hicken, “Virginia Tech | In case of emergency: VT tragedy spurs analysis of SU&#39;s safety procedures,” The April 16 Archive, accessed March 3, 2024,