Virginia Tech Improves Security Response After 2007 Shootings

Two die after shootings on the Va. Tech campus.

Dec. 8, 2011— -- As Virginia Tech administrators attended a hearing in Washington, D.C., today to appeal a $55,000 fine related to the school's 2007 shooting rampage, two people died on campus after being shot.

Today's incident tested the school's emergency response system four years after the 2007 massacre that killed 33 people, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. But even though top security officials were several miles away at the hearing, the school's emergency response system didn't appear to experience any glitches.

"We had a series of typed-up protocols for different kinds of incidents," said Larry Hincker, head of Virginia Tech University Relations, who rushed back to campus after attending the hearing today in Washington, D.C. "This is our predetermined template for an incident of this nature. We had many people on our campus now that had the ability to send [emergency] alerts."

In 2007, it took more than two hours after the dormitory shooting for the administration to issue its first alert to the campus community. The Education Department fined the school for waiting so long to send out a vague warning email. Under the Clery Act, universities are required to provide timely warnings.

But today, the school issued five separate alerts and updates in less than two hours.

After today's emergency that occurred shortly after noon, the school launched its first text message at 12:37 p.m. and then followed up with more text messages, electronic message board alerts, website updates and emails.

"Sometimes technology doesn't cooperate with you, but today it functioned extremely well," said Virginia Tech president Charles Steger.

Melissa Lucchesi, an Outreach Education Coordinator at Security on Campus, Inc., a nonprofit group in Wayne, Pa., that advises schools and advocates for legislation to keep students safe, told that Virginia Tech launched its lockdown and warnings "fairly quickly."

"It seems they have alerted students as soon as they could and got out that information through multiple sources, through their homepage and through several of their social networking sites," she said.

S. Daniel Carter, the director of public policy at Security on Campus, attended Virginia Tech's hearing today in Washington, D.C. He declined to comment on the hearing itself, but said Deputy Chief of Police Gene Deisinger, who was hired in 2009, is "extremely qualified," and, "it certainly does not appear that there was an adverse effect."

The hearing ended before noon at the U.S. District Court, shortly before a shooting killed a Virginia Tech police officer at a parking lot. The officer died during a routine traffic stop, the school reported, and another person was found dead at a different parking lot where the shooter had fled.

Sources believed the second victim was the shooter, but police would not confirm it at an afternoon news conference.

No other reports of gunmen occurred after the second body was found, police said.

It's unknown as to whether the timing of the shooting had anything to do with today's hearing in Washington, D.C., which was attended by Virginia Tech's director of emergency management Michael Mulhare, and Wendell Flinchum, the chief of the Virginia Tech Police Department.

"We don't know the motive of this tragedy on our campus," Hinker said. "At this point, one would have to assume that it's just highly, highly coincidental."

Though it initially was unclear whether or not the shooter remained on the lam, students who spoke with said they nevertheless felt safe.

"I would like to say that I am extremely proud of VT for quick notification and updates. I love this school and feel very safe here," tweeted a Virginia Tech student, who goes by the handle "skidmore101."

Brett Hockersmith, a 22-year-old senior studying aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech, said he was sitting with an estimated 500 students in the school's "math emporium," off the main campus, when he saw electronic message boards beeping and flashing news about the first gunshots. The message boards were a new addition to the school's emergency management system after the 2007 shooting.

"You can look around and see people looking around, groups forming to talk," said Hockersmith. "People were panicking because there wasn't a lot of information. They didn't know how many people were dead."

Although Virginia Tech was criticized for its response to the 2007 shooting, Hockersmith said he felt the school greatly improved their response this time.

"I think it's definitely been a lot safer. I feel like this time around you know more what happened," said Hockersmith. "[There's] been a much larger police presence since then."

Although Hockersmith's older brother was a student at VT during the 2007 rampage, Hockersmith said he always felt safe while at the school.

"I always thought Virginia Tech was the safest campus," he said. "It's hard to go a block or two without seeing a cop car or a cop and bike, and you just know that everyone is looking out for you. It's just a shock that it happened again."