How the Virginia Tech Shooting Changed Campus Security Forever
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
April 16 marks the nine-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting, where 32 students and teachers were killed by a fellow student. Thirty people were killed inside Norris Hall after the perpetrator chained externals doors shut, delaying police from being able to enter the building. There were many lessons learned from the Virginia Tech shooting, and the incident forever changed the way universities and colleges approach campus security.
Showing Students How to Think Dynamically
Joseph Kripp has been the safety and security director for a university in Illinois for the past two years. Before becoming a campus security director, he spent 35 years as a federal law enforcement officer and earned his master’s degree in security management from American Military University.
As a campus security director, Kripp has found that showing students and faculty how to respond to an incident is more effective than telling them. The security department conducts ongoing training that starts with freshman orientation sessions and other gatherings, and holds smaller-scale trainings in classrooms, office buildings, and other campus locations.
“We attempt to train campus community members to think dynamically, depending on how the situation evolves,” said Kripp. “We don’t train them to respond like they would for a fire alarm evacuation, for example, where you leave the building and meet in a parking lot. That’s because the way they react to a situation depends entirely on how it evolves.”
The security department teaches this dynamic thinking approach because—as with the Virginia Tech shooting—the person committing the violence could likely be a person familiar with building evacuation plans. “If we tell campus community members exactly what to do and how to get out of the building, it’s likely that the bad guy knows that as well,” he said. To help community members survive an incident, the security team reinforces that they should remain calm, trust their instincts, act smartly, make good decisions, and take care of themselves and others as best they can as the situation develops.
Violent Act Threat Planning
Kripp’s security department is charged with preparing the university’s violent active threat plan. It is not referred to as an “active shooter” plan because an incident may involve a bomb or other weapon other than a firearm.
The violent active threat plan is based on the Department of Homeland Security’s Active Shooter protocol, which recommends a “run, hide, fight” response approach.
The security team’s most important message to students and staff is that they cannot wait to react; they must take action immediately.
Recognize the Threat
The first element of response is to teach students and staff how to recognize a potential threat. “Never have rose-colored glasses on about a situation,” said Kripp. “Always be aware of your surroundings.”
For example, the campus security team teaches campus community members that if they hear a loud bang outside, instead of assuming everything is fine, get up and look out the window. If everything looks normal, return to your activities. But if people are running around and there seems to be an escalating dynamic scene outside, go into action mode. Run and call 911 or if you can’t get out, find a hiding position.
Run or Hide
The campus security team demonstrates to students and faculty how to think about hiding. The best way to hide is by locking doors and barricading classroom or office doors. The training team also shows campus community members how to use furniture to barricade a door.
If a person chooses to run, the training team talks about learning the layout of buildings, knowing where stairwells are, and how to recognize danger. The team advises community members to get away from the danger by keeping objects like walls, trees or vehicles between them and the threat. Fleeing members should leave their belongings behind, help others leave if possible, and then evacuate whether people around them agree to follow or not.
The security team reminds students and faculty that the scene will be chaotic. Those fleeing should not attempt to move seriously wounded people. Instead, they should note the person’s location and report it to first responders when in a safe area. Fleeing members are then directed to follow instructions of police and/or campus security personnel and to keep their hands visible as they leave the immediate area.
To solidify this information, the security team conducts “what if” scenarios and asks students and staff how they would respond to different scenarios. They pose questions like:
- How would you get out of this classroom?
- Where in this room would you hide?
- How would you barricade this entrance?
- What are three possible ways to get out of this building?
Kripp has found that asking such questions forces people to think more about their surroundings and be more aware of things like the layout of the classroom, the location of exits, and the floor plan of campus buildings.
Be Ready to Fight
If campus community members aren’t able to run or hide and the offender comes toward them and their life is in imminent danger, students and faculty are trained that as a last resort they must be ready to fight. “The bottom line is that you can’t sit down and not be engaged in the situation,” he said. “Students can’t assume they can just wait for the police to arrive, because statistics show that these situations happen so fast and many people are injured or killed before police can get into the building.”
What to Expect from Police
Students are also taught about how police are trained to respond to a violent incident. The first goal of police is to stop the perpetrator. To do so, they often have to pass by injured or scared students. Once the perpetrator has been stopped, police can help victims and medical services will be staged nearby, but students must understand that police may not help them immediately.
Working with Local Police and First Responders
To coordinate such a response requires a significant amount of collaboration among local police, fire, and medical services. “Since we are a private security force, we work closely with our local emergency first responders and regularly invite them to come on campus,” said Kripp.
They also regularly give agencies tours of campus facilities so they understand the layout of the campus. In addition, the university has emergency response booklets and evacuation floor plans posted in every building, which is also given to every fire, police, and emergency services agency in the area. In addition, this information is posted on the university’s website and emailed to campus community members.
Campus Programs to Address Warning Signs of Individuals
One of the outcomes of the investigation into the Virginia Tech shooting was that there had been numerous warning signs about the perpetrator. For example, in October 2005 a professor reported the student’s unusual behavior to the department chair and requested the student be removed from the class. The department chair reported these behavioral concerns to the Virginia Tech Police Department, but refused to provide the student’s name. In November 2005, the student was found responsible for setting small fires in the dorm and harassing a female student. He agreed to be evaluated by mental health professionals in December 2005. However, the student discontinued counseling services and did not receive further attention.
“After Virginia Tech, we realized a lot could be prevented. Many universities adopted an intervention team strategy to identify students who exhibited concerning behavioral patterns in order to be proactive about getting them help,” said Kripp.
Kripp is a key member of his university’s Behavior Intervention Team. This team consists of mental health counselors, the dean of students, student life department staff, and members of the administration. This team meets regularly to discuss potential issues. This group works together to identify students who have elicited concerning behavior—without compromising their privacy—and determine if they should receive counseling services. “If we can recognize someone who’s having issues early, we can help reduce the chances of something escalating to where it becomes a problem,” said Kripp.
This proactive approach is built around communication and ensuring that different departments within the university have a way to share information.
Continued Evolution of Campus Security
While Virginia Tech was a major turning point for campus security protocols, subsequent incidents have reinforced the need for such training programs. “After the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015, we made a big push to re-educate our population,” he said. “We can’t become stagnant with our training because there are always new students, new employees, so we have to keep pushing our message out there.”
Safety and security programs will always face challenges in staying on the forefront of people’s minds, especially in an academic setting where the primary focus is on education and student development. However, universities and colleges must always remember what happened at Virginia Tech and work to keep adequate resources available, so students and staff are continually educated about how to respond to an incident.
“Security is not here to scare people, but we need to make sure our community members are aware of their surroundings and trained how to react appropriately and in a balanced approach,” said Kripp. “We don’t want people to be heroes, but we want to train them how to think dynamically and be ready to act.”