by David Chapman
Even the most tragic of events can yield lessons for the future.
Almost a year ago on the campus of Virginia Tech, student Seung-Hui Cho took the lives of 32 people and injured 17 others before killing himself in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
In search of answers from questions that arose that day, Virginia Gov. Michael Kaine announced the formation of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, a group comprised of experts in such fields as law enforcement, security, mental health and higher education. The panel, along with TriData, a public safety consulting and research firm, dissected the April 16, 2007 incident.
TriData President and Panel Director Philip Schaenman and TriData Director of the Center for Public Protection and Panel Deputy Director Hollis Stambaugh shared some of those key findings with over 120 law enforcement officials, university administrators and others Tuesday during a workshop at the University of North Florida in an effort to promote the concept of critical incident planning for universities.
“We learned a lot of important things today,” said UNF Chief of Police Mark Foxworth. “We learned how they (Virginia Tech officials) responded to the situation, the missed red flags and indicators and the structure implemented afterward.”
The full-day workshop, “Mass Shooting at Virginia Tech: Lessons Learned and Panel Recommendations,” was accompanied by an over 200-page report that detailed such topics as timelines of the day, the setting and security in place on the campus, Cho’s mental health history, privacy law issues and the response of local emergency medical services personnel.
Shaenman and Stambaugh have done over 60 after-action studies of major public safety events, but both said the Virginia Tech study was one the most challenging due to the scale and national attention given to the incident.
Being proactive on a university level and having the proper people on a true threat assessment team is key, said Stambaugh.
“Many high schools and colleges have the equivalent of what they call a threat assessment team,” said Stambaugh, “but it may or may not be a full legitimate team capable of doing the kind of analysis needed to figure out serious problems.”
Threat assessment teams are representatives from medical centers, guidance departments and even community psychiatrists that have a finger on the pulse of the student community and can see warning signs of potential unhealthy behavior. Law enforcement and women’s centers should also be part of the team, due to being heavily involved in campus life and potential targets.
“We’d like to see colleges, universities and high schools coming up with these emergency operation plans,” said Stambaugh.
UNF has had a Crisis Management Team for years, said Sharon Ashton, assistant vice president of public relations. Many of the members were in attendance.
The UNF team has 4-5 “core” members who meet and discuss any issue that arises and 20-30 support members who serve a secondary role, depending upon the situation. When an emergency happens, Ashton and the other core members involve those secondary members whose skills fit the situation.
“It’s a great system,” she said. “What the emergency is dictates who else we bring to the table.”
Even with their system in place, Ashton and others took home valuable lessons to further add to their own system.
“This was fabulous,” she said. “To break it down and go through this person’s (Cho’s) life step-by-step and his actions, break it down and find out where the system failed and where it was successful. It was a unique opportunity because there are so many similarities on campuses.”