After Cho’s rampage, the closer I look at Tech’s actions, the more disheartened I become. The more I examine the words and actions of Virginia Tech officials regarding the April 16, 2007 shooting, the more I realize that school officials will say just about anything to conceal the truth. The school’s willingness to avoid addressing the facts has run amok. For example, Virginia Tech has never adequately explained the inconsistency in the rapid warning of the campus in the Morva case some eight months before Cho’s rampage, and its inaction on April 16th.
A closer examination of the earlier incident raises some disturbing questions. Following the Morva incident, a review of the university’s Emergency Response Plan (ERP) recommended adding a section dealing with armed and dangerous individuals on campus to the ERP. Virginia Tech spokesperson, Larry Hincker, however, is quoted in the May 23, 2007 edition of the Roanoke Times as saying, “After we went back and looked at that (the plan), we felt that was not a correct assessment of our emergency plan…” Hincker then asserted that the emergency plan did contain a plan for armed intruders on campus.
I have read the Emergency Response Plan, and I find no reference to armed intruders. The recommendations following the Morva incident, therefore, were correct and Hincker was wrong. Guidance on dealing with armed and dangerous individuals should have been added to the report—and the university had been alerted to that need. The obvious question is, had such a section been added, would Tech have been better prepared to deal with Cho?
The ERP indicates that Cho’s initial double homicide met the Level III incident criteria. This fact raises another question, why didn’t the school follow more closely the guidelines that did exist? A Level III incident is defined as: “An incident occurring at the university that adversely impacts or threatens life, health or property at the university on a large scale. Control of the incident will require specialists in addition to university and outside agency personnel. Long-term implications may result.”
Under the criteria for a Level III incident, the university should have taken immediate action after discovering the homicides at West Ambler Johnston dormitory. Look at the first criterion for a Level III incident—it was met. That criterion reads: “Serious hazard or severe threat to life, health, and property.” The fifth criterion was also met. It reads: “Duration of event is unpredictable.”
Even if you look at a Level II incident, as defined by the Virginia Tech Emergency Response Plan, clearly the school should have warned immediately. The first sentence of the definition of a Level II reads: “An unplanned event of unpredictable duration that may adversely impact or threaten life, health or property on a large scale at one or more locations within the university.” Those words call for immediate action.
Another of Hincker’s justifications for the school’s inaction is contained in the explanation of why the Virginia Tech administration delayed in issuing a campus-wide warning. The reason for the school’s timidity, the story goes, was the so-called panic that occurred when a warning was issued during the Morva incident eight months earlier. The panic—which was not really a panic, but the circulation of unfounded, alarming rumors—centered on false stories that Morva had taken a hostage in Tech’s Squires Student Center. Police did surround the Student Center, and students leaving the facility did find officers with drawn weapons, but to call what took place in front of the Student Center a panic is a gross exaggeration and attempt to conceal what really happened.
Perhaps the most blatantly self-serving explanation of the school’s inaction comes from Virginia Tech President Charles Steger himself. He is quoted as saying that the “panic” at the time of the Morva incident created a dangerous situation that could have cost hundreds of lives. This comment is not based on fact; it is another attempt to whitewash the school’s inaction on the morning of April 16, 2007.
It is true that many accounts report that the lockdown during the Morva case was less than effective. However, this only serves to highlight the fact that Virginia Tech had experienced a less than perfect outcome for its lockdown procedures months prior to Cho’s rampage, and their response to the problems that Morva’s case had highlighted was not to improve the lockdown system, but simply not to use it at all. It begs the question: If you lock your front door and then your house gets broken into, do you get a better lock? Or do you simply leave your door hanging open?
Saying the campus is too big is simply another bogus reason Virginia Tech gives for its failure to lock down on the morning of April 16, 2007. One of the critical security functions for all universities and colleges is the ability to lock a campus down. Virginia Tech says it is too big to do that. But take a look at the State University (SUNY), Oneonta, New York. SUNY Oneonta has the ability to lock down every building on campus (with the exception of the gym) with four strokes on the computer keyboard. The fact is that school lock downs on large campuses can be done. While SUNY is not as large as Virginia Tech, it is nevertheless a large school with a 250-acre campus, 5,808 full- and part-time students and 15 residence halls.
My evaluation of the Emergency Response plan and its implementation on April 16, 2007 does not stand alone. Others have identified many of the same flaws and questions I have. Vincent Bove, in his book, Listen to Their Cries, makes the following points on page 80:
“How is it conceivable that two people are killed on a college campus during the week of the anniversary of Columbine and the killer is at large and lockdown is not immediately called for? Even if it were determined that the first two killings could not have been prevented because of the complexities and confusion surrounding mental health and privacy issues, it is inexcusable that nothing was done to prevent the 30 killings and multiple injuries that occurred two hours later.”
Bove goes on to call for a full accounting of the decision making process from the Virginia Tech administration, and calls the university leadership to task for focusing more on the school’s image and damage control than on mitigating the suffering of victims and their families.
Let’s take a moment and look at the school’s prompt reaction to the campus shooting on December 8, 2011, when Ross Truett Ashley murdered Virginia Tech police officer Deriek Crouse. The campus was immediately warned and the school was locked down. Ironically, its actions on December 8, 2011 undercut and show the fallacy of its defense for Tech’s more than two-hour delay in reacting to shootings at West Ambler Johnston Hall.
Granted, by 2011 the warning system at Tech was much improved, but even allowing for these improvements, the Steger administration’s delay in 2007 remains inexcusable. We can all be thankful that no one has to make excuses for Virginia Tech’s response in 2011. (To be continued)