Tragedy sparks memories and change


Tragedy sparks memories and change


By Jeff Gilbride/Daily News staff
Daily News Tribune
Posted Apr 15, 2008 @ 12:43 AM


A year ago Wednesday, Kalynn Cook's childhood friend was killed when Seung-Hui Cho opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus.

To mark the first anniversary and to remember her friend, Erin Peterson, the Brandeis freshman from Sterling, Va., planned a candlelight vigil for tomorrow night.

"I'm from northern Virginia and I came up here for school. When it got to be April I knew that the one-year anniversary would be coming up. I looked at the Brandeis calendar of events and I noticed there wasn't anything scheduled," she said. "I decided to talk to some of my friends who happen to be involved in student activism. They suggested I host an event myself."

Cook said she contacted the student organization Democracy for America, which helped organize the event.

Starting at 7 p.m. tomorrow, students will read a biography of each person killed in the massacre, hold a prayer service and conduct an open forum to discuss the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history.

Cho cut down his victims in two attacks two hours apart before the university could grasp what was happening and warn students. The bloodbath ended with the gunman committing suicide.

Thirty-two individual flames will be lit, one for each of the victims.

"(Democracy for America) handles activism. I went to one of their meetings and they decided to sponsor me. I got some materials from them and I got some advice," she said. "I spoke to Father Walter Cuenin (a Brandeis chaplain) and he's going to be speaking at the vigil ... it doesn't just affect the Virginia Tech community, but college communities all over the nation."

Since the killings, Brandeis University officials adopted a number of precautionary measures to ensure the safety of students.

"Certainly Virginia Tech marked a very significant turning point for us wanting to look for as many measures to help best inform people on campus on what to do in the event of an emergency," said Brandeis spokesman Dennis Nealon "It's all a work in progress to address emergency warning issues."

Nealon said Brandeis officials instituted a number of precautionary communication measures under what is now referred to as the Brandeis Emergency Notification System.

One step was to place towers around campus that serve as warning sirens in case of an emergency.

"The intention of the sirens is to tell people to go indoors and to proceed to get whatever information they need about what the particular emergency is," Nealon said. "Another step was that every land (line) phone on campus was equipped with a small video screen."

Nealon said the video screens can display a written notice or audible message in case of an emergency.

"We'll inform people that an emergency situation has developed and we'll tell them what steps to take," he said. "We also have an 80 percent voluntary response from students to our initiative to gather as many cell phone numbers as we could. The university now can send text messages directly to people's cell phones."

Bentley College in Waltham also uses a similar campus alert system, through a program called "Connect-Ed." Bentley spokeswoman Michelle Walsh said the school collected cell phone numbers from almost the entire college community to send out a text message or voice mail message in case of an emergency.

Walsh said Bentley College had taken most of these precautionary measures before the Virginia Tech massacre. He said the incident caused campus officials to review existing communications and security.

Bentley College has a crisis planning team comprised of staff and students that meets twice a month. The team holds "tabletop drills," in which they map out scenarios of potential emergencies and discuss how to deal with them.

"The crisis planning team meets twice a month and has been well before the Virginia Tech tragedy. Following the tragedy was a review of what would happen if we had an equivalent situation," Walsh said. "I think the most important thing is our crisis planning team works closely with the campus police ... you learn from every school (tragedy). If a school meets regularly, the better prepared they are, no matter what the situation."

Unlike their counterparts at Bentley, Brandeis University Police officers are unarmed, a practice that is expected to change this summer. Last year, Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz announced he accepted a recommendation of an eight-member university firearms panel to equip Brandeis Police with guns.

"An advisory committee (was) formed initially of faculty and students to look at the issue in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy," Nealon said. "That committee gave a yes-vote to the president (that the police should be armed)."

Nealon said the tragedy reignited the topic of arming Brandeis Police, which was discussed randomly in previous years.

"The Virginia Tech tragedy did spur that discussion again," Nealon said. "About 20 officers have been undergoing field and psychological training. ... They are all being certified at the state police academy in Massachusetts."

Jeff Gilbride can be reached at 781-398-8005 or at

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