Last week’s shooting of a campus police officer at Virginia Tech brought back unwelcome memories of the attack that took place there four years ago, in which 33 people were killed and 25 injured by a single gunman.
The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting was a watershed moment in campus security–the event that made universities, high schools, even elementary schools take stock of what security measures they had in place. As a result, schools have defined three main best practices:
- Recognizing the danger signs
- Communicating the danger
- Developing a response plan
Recognize the Danger Signs
One thing Virginia Tech and other schools have explored is taking a proactive rather than a reactive approach: Identifying at-risk students and learning to recognize the red flags so they can prevent these kinds of events before they occur. Most of the time there are precursors leading up to the event. The 2007 perpetrator, for example, had a history of mental health issues and had been reported to campus authorities for dark writings, stalking and other antisocial behavior. So I advise the schools we consult with how to recognize the red flags, educate the student population about them, and encourage reporting suspicious behavior to the school’s threat assessment team.
Communicate the Danger
You can’t expect to identify every at-risk individual ahead of time, so you need to have a plan in place to quickly communicate a volatile situation. Communications is half the battle, so it must be a system that uses multiple levels of communication to reach every single individual on campus:
- Message boards
- Text messages
- Voice mail
- Audio system
- Social media
This is one area where we see a real difference in Virginia Tech’s response. In 2007, the school’s first alert–an email–went out more than 2 hours after the first shots were fired.; Last week, the alerts went out–and the school went into lock down–just minutes after the 911 call.
Most schools have always had plans in place, but 2007 forced a reexamination of those plans: how thorough are they, how current and have they been practiced –via tabletop or via live drill (ideally both).
And institutions should reevaluate their plans annually. The first thing I ask a client when I meet with them is, “When was the last time you assessed your processes?” Because what made sense last year may not make sense this year.