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Learning the Wrong Lessons from VT

The Virginia Tech killings changed the paradigm for issuing emergency notifications.

April 16, 2012 – It is now five years since the Virginia Tech shootings, and I’m getting angry again, just like I do every year on this date.

April 16, 2007, is one of those days that is branded on my brain, right alongside Sept. 11, 2001. In fact, it is burned a little more deeply than 9/11, because the slaughter at Virginia Tech hit closer to home for me.

I will never forget emerging from a contentious meeting in the Loudoun County Government Center that day, to find two voicemail messages that instantly made all my other problems seem insignificant. Both messages were from my oldest daughter, who was a junior at Virginia Tech.

In the first message, she anxiously said that there had been two murders on campus. She had started out for class that morning, but had returned to her off-campus apartment when she heard about the killings. She was calling to assure me that she was safe.

The second message was much more emotional. She had heard that there were more shootings taking place on campus, and that people were jumping out of the windows of a classroom building to escape the killer. It seemed like all hell was breaking loose—and as we now know, it was.

I called her back immediately, and was reassured to hear her voice. But as we were talking, I heard her suddenly cry out when she received the news that one of her friends, Ryan Clark, had been among the first to die.

She also told me that there were rumors that the killer was a young Asian man and, incredibly, she thought she knew who it might be—a frighteningly sullen student who sometimes sat silently next to her in English class, Seung Hui Cho. As we later learned, her hunch was right.

Since I had been reassured that she was physically safe, my emotions shifted directly to anger. After I hung up the phone, the first words out of my mouth cursed the fact that we live in a society that apparently places more value on the unfettered access to firearms than on the safety of our children.

I’m still angry about that. But I am also angry that, as the history of the Virginia Tech massacre is being written, we seem to be drawing the wrong conclusions.

Because of recent court decisions and the public’s desire to blame people in charge when things go wrong, it is becoming conventional wisdom that the massacre occurred because public safety officials were slow to inform the Virginia Tech community about the first two killings and to “lock down” the campus.

I strongly disagree.

As one of the people who was involved with setting up the Alert Loudoun system, I have some experience with emergency notification systems. In 2007, such systems were still relatively new, and many institutions had not yet fully developed procedures for issuing public notifications.

The Virginia Tech shootings—and the criticism the university received for its seemingly slow response—changed that. Now, nearly all educational institutions have emergency notification systems, and they have learned that they must use them promptly any time there is a shooting or a killing. That’s because of what happened in Blacksburg five years ago.

But it is unfair to hold Virginia Tech officials to 2012 standards for a crime that occurred in 2007. To do so is a textbook example of exercising 20/20 hindsight.  The Virginia Tech killings changed the paradigm for emergency notifications.

It’s easy to see why the first responders thought that the first two killings, of Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher, probably resulted from an isolated domestic situation, possibly committed by an angry boyfriend. The police had no reason to anticipate that the killer would go on to kill 30 more people. After all, a mass murder of that magnitude had never happened before in this country. To say that the police should have anticipated that something like that could occur is, again, pure hindsight.

Consider this: if officials had notified the public sooner and had somehow been able to lock down the entire university, Cho would have still been somewhere on campus, armed with two semi-automatic weapons and enough ammunition to kill hundreds of people. He would have been locked down with the others, perhaps in a residence hall, dining hall or student center. There might have been just as many victims, or even more.

Still, I don’t hold Virginia Tech blameless. In the months leading up to the killings, the university did not respond adequately to concerns about Cho that had been raised by both students and faculty.

But even if he had been dismissed from the university, there was nothing to stop this disturbed, determined, suicidal young man from arming himself with semi-automatic weapons and returning to campus to carry out his killing spree.

That’s another reason why, five years later, I’m still angry. And I get angry every time it happens again, in DeKalb, Tucson, Oakland, or the next place. It’s just too easy for dangerously disturbed people to get their hands on weapons that are built to kill lots of people in a short amount of time.

That’s the lesson we should have learned from the Virginia Tech shootings.

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