Saturday, February 6, 2010


The efforts of Virginia General Assembly Delegates Bill Janis (R-Goochland County) and Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin County) to delay or kill the reappointment of Franklin County Circuit Judge William Alexander appear to be partisan politics at its worst. The two delegates’ actions could derail the most important law suit and trial in Virginia in decades—the suit against Virginia Tech officials by the parents of slain students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson.

Judge Alexander recently ruled there is enough evidence of gross negligence that the suit against several current and former Virginia Tech officials, including school president, Charles Steger, can go forward. This ruling did not go over well with the right wing glitterati of Virginia’s body politic, some of whom argue no one can be held responsible for someone else’s actions. Therefore, Seung Hui Cho, and only Seung Hui Cho, is responsible for the mass killings at Virginia Tech.

The problem with that position is the failure to take into account the concept of “foreseeability,” a principle that says if the warning signs are readily apparent, and individuals who are aware of those signs do nothing, then those individuals can be held responsible for their inaction. If you look at the number of warning signs at Virginia Tech—the number is staggering. What more of a warning do you want than a professor threatening to resign unless a student (Cho) is removed from her class because she fears for her safety and the safety of her students?

Judge Alexander’s ruling was, therefore, a blow to the ostentatious right. Janis and Poindexter may have decided to seize another issue to delay or stop the judge’s reappointment in order to mask their real motive. It appears the issue they chose was Alexander’s decision to release a grand jury report after the indictment of Franklin County Sheriff Ewell Hunt. The sheriff was indicted on charges of keeping improper records about the employment of his daughter.

Delegate Janis has publicly acknowledged that the judge had the authority to release the report, which the judge did in response to a motion filed by the special prosecutor in the case, Pittsylvania County Commonwealth’s Attorney, David Grimes. If Judge Alexander had the right to grant the motion, then what is Delegate Janis doing other than playing politics?

It should also be noted that Sheriff Hunt is a Republican sheriff and his attorney is Bill Stanley, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party. If the Judge’s ruling on the Virginia Tech lawsuit is not part of the two delegates’ motives, their actions are just as shameful. They would then be guilty of putting partisan politics ahead of school safety. The outcome of the lawsuit filed by the Pryde and Peterson families could easily spell the difference between safe and unsafe schools in this state. The simple fact is that unless people in positions of authority are held responsible for their actions; unless they understand they will pay a price for inaction, Virginia schools will never be safe.

NOTE: Mike Pohle alerted me the delaying tactics of Delegates Janis and Poindexter. Teresa and Michael Pohle lost their son, Michel, at Virginia Tech on April 15, 2007. Before publishing this blog, I asked Mike to comment on its content. The following are his comments:

My reaction is that this is just another of the never ending tactics on the part of state government to ensure the cover-up of the VT Massacre stays intact. In this instance, the charade is being orchestrated by Republicans to not only to protect a corrupt Republican Sheriff, but, the current Republican Governor. What is more appalling is that they do not care if they destroy the career, and integrity, of Judge Alexander. As long as their backsides are covered, that collateral damage is more than acceptable. This behavior also clearly demonstrates why the majority of Americans are correct in their low regard for politicians. My deceased father used to say that politicians were lower than used car salesmen. I send my apologies to used car salesmen for putting them in the same category.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


You don’t send a policeman to put out a fire, and you don’t send a fireman to analyze a mass murder. But that is just what the state of Virginia did when it hired TriData to write Governor Kaine’s Review Panel Report of the shootings at Virginia Tech. TriData was apparently picked to write Governor Kaine’s Review Panel Report on Virginia Tech because the firm had done a report for the Department of Homeland Security on Columbine.

The problem is that the Columbine report is a completely different type of report than what was needed for Virginia Tech. The first two sentences on page one of the TriData Columbine report make that clear. “This report is an analysis of the fire service and emergency medical service (EMS) operations and the overall response to the assault on Columbine High School at Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Incident command, special operations, and mass casualty emergency medical services are featured.”

Indeed, if you google the head of TriData, Philip Schaenman, one of the entries is entitled: “Fireman, Philip Schaenman.” His background includes fire administration and he is “known to the fire community for leading studies and research on first responder issues,” according to the Web site for TriData, whose products include titles such as “Fire in the United States” and “International Concepts in Fire Protection.”

The Columbine report is a better report than TriData’s effort on Virginia Tech, probably because it deals with an area that TriData knows something about—emergency responses by fire and medical services. The report never really analyzes the warning signs or the actions of people in positions of authority to the crisis on April 20, 1999.

That said, there are sections of the Columbine report that do pertain to the Virginia Tech tragedy. Inexplicably, though, those sections are not sufficiently developed in the Tech report. For example, the Columbine report repeatedly refers to the importance of the Incident Command System (ICS) in responding to a crisis. While the report refers to ICS with reference to fire service personnel managing major incidents and crises, a major flaw at Virginia Tech was the poor management at the ICS-equivalent level. Given the emphasis on the role of the ICS in the Columbine report, I am puzzled why TriData did not put greater emphasis on that point in the Virginia Tech report. Major breakdowns on April 16, 2007, were mismanagement and the poor decision-making after the double homicide at West Ambler Johnston—and before 30 more people were killed at Norris Hall nearly two and one-half hours later.

TriData’s Columbine report also provides some good insights about four technologies that enhance crisis response (pages 37-39). They are: surveillance technology; interagency communications; detection, disablement, and containment of explosive devices; and intelligence. It is the last one, “intelligence,” that points to a major flaw at Virginia Tech; a flaw, which to my knowledge, has not been adequately addressed or corrected. Here again, I am puzzled as to why TriData’s Virginia Tech report did not go into the lack of “intelligence” more than it did.

Specifically, the Columbine report indicates: “When responding units first arrived on the scene at the Columbine assault, they had little definitive intelligence upon which to rely. … The lack of intelligence data was exacerbated by the length of time it took to disseminate incoming information to personnel in the field. Maintaining an effective method to communicate intelligence data (location of suspects, background data on the suspects, number of suspects, appearance, etc.) to operations personnel is essential during chaotic and intense situations such as the Columbine incident.”

Other universities, such as the State University System of New York, have addressed the intelligence problem by installing cameras, conducting drills, making sure plans of all buildings are up to date, briefing students on what to do in a crisis, and creating a security system with the ability to lock down practically all buildings on campus with four stokes on a keypad. Virginia Tech has improved some aspects of its campus security and emergency response plans, but a case could be made that much more should be done at Tech, including the ability to lock down buildings. It is curious that TriData doesn’t stress “an effective method to communicate intelligence” and draw more from the related issues in its own Columbine report.

Again, you have to ask, “Why did Virginia pay a ‘fireman’ nearly three quarters of million dollars to produce a report that should have been done by crime specialists?” The problem with the Virginia Tech report may, in fact not be so much TriData, but Governor Kaine and then-Attorney General McDonnell. They apparently did not fully check out options other than TriData. For example, a far better model for the state of Virginia to follow would have been the 174 page report produced at the behest of Colorado Governor Bill Owens.