Reflections on Virginia Tech

I am exhausted as I write this. I am in the middle of a series of 30 campus safety conferences around the nation. We have presented at numerous colleges and universities and I am flying from state to state while trying to handle, as responsibly as I can, a barrage of media requests each day. In more than 100 interviews in the past 48 hours, I have done my best to try to provide information while many of the reporters have pressed hard to get me to criticize the actions of Virginia Tech police and administrators though facts are not yet clear. Many reporters have been very professional, responsible, and reasonable while others have appeared intent on destroying — with ink and televised images — the Virginia Tech police chief and president.


Many of my interviews and comments will never appear in print or in a broadcast because I responded that it was too early to make such judgments. I also know those reporters will easily find someone else to say what they want to hear. It has been a distressing two days for everyone. Facts are not always clear and experience has demonstrated that at this stage many“facts” will later prove to be irrelevant or false.


What is clear to me is that no university police chief, president, parent, student, or faculty member wants to go through what the Virginia Tech campus community has gone and will be going through. It is also clear the media will doggedly pursue any campus administration that they feel has mishandled a mass casualty event. I am sure every college and university president and their chief safety official have been engaged in significant discussions because they can at least begin to imagine what their counterparts at Virginia Tech are experiencing. I know they also feel genuine pain for the sudden loss of so many fine lives.


The current soul searching will result in the flurry of activity that we saw with the K-12 school community following the Columbine shooting. We have worked with more than 2,000 K-12 schools and institutions of higher learning in two dozen countries, and have noted that many K-12 school systems have prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery plans and measures in place that many colleges and universities still do not utilize.


While many colleges and universities are truly cutting-edge in these areas, we still see campuses where faculty members are not capable of performing a lockdown in their classrooms, where there is no multidisciplinary threat assessment team, and where staff members have not been trained in the proven concepts of visual weapons screening. We know from the K-12 experience that most campus weapons assaults can be prevented, as hundreds of planned attacks have been averted using techniques suitable for colleges and universities.


Colleges and universities face many unique challenges compared to K-12 schools. For example, President Charles Steger and Police Chief Wendell Flinchum have made a valid point — that locking down a campus the size of Virginia Tech is an extraordinarily difficult task. Many people fail to understand that major universities like Virginia Tech are larger than many cities in the nation. I have asked dozens of hostile reporters to name a city of 25,000 to 30,000 that has“locked down” in response to a double homicide with no information to indicate further violence.


Similarly, some effective K-12 techniques — such as student dress codes to prevent weapons concealment — are not typically practical in the higher-ed setting. Other techniques work very well but need to be significantly modified to be effective for colleges and universities. There are also commonly utilized technology solutions, such as rapid notification systems, that can notify thousands of people by phone, e-mail, and other means in a few minutes, even translating messages into other languages. K-12 schools routinely utilize these emergency communications systems.


There is no doubt that many colleges and universities will now make significant improvements in their safety efforts. The tragedy at Virginia Tech once again reminds us all that even the nation’s finest colleges and universities can be the scene of terrible tragedies. We are all now on notice that the media and the American public will not go easy on those they perceive — accurately or otherwise — to have failed to protect students and faculty.


Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the Virginia Tech community. We should all make sure the tragic loss of life is not in vain as we strive to improve campus safety in the memory of the many fine people who died there.



Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, non-profit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety and can be reached through the Safe Havens Website at www.safehavensinternational.org.


About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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