Mandate for Mass Notification

The parents of two former Virginia Tech students have won a $4 million jury-awarded lawsuit resulting from the deaths of their children, Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde. The decision stems from the Virginia Tech massacre that took place on April 16, 2007, in which a gunman killed 32 students, then turned a gun on himself.

The award sends a profound message that universities and colleges should do more to alert students in the event of an emergency.

No one wins in this jury decision, but the mandate is clear: Higher education needs to be more responsible and more accountable in warning students, staff and educators when a crisis arises. In the case of Virginia Tech, the university waited two and a half hours to notify students of a double homicide inside a residence hall. By that time, the gunman, Seung- Hui Cho, had barricaded himself inside Norris Hall, where he opened fire in classrooms.

“If I had received word, any sort of word—text message, email, saw a post on the front of the website— that there was a double homicide and a gunman on the loose, I would not have gotten in my car and gone to class,” said Virginia Tech student Colin Goddard, who was shot four times while hiding under his desk during the massacre.

“I really hope that this decision does set a precedent and does put students around the country in a safer position,” he said.

The jury judgment is in addition to the $55,000 the Department of Education fined the school for not sending out a timely campus warning. This decision is under appeal. As for the $4 million judgment, the state also has filed an appeal to reduce the award.

Admittedly, schools and universities are in a tough spot. In 1990, the federal government introduced the Clery Act. This requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses. Failure to do so can result in civil penalties of up to $27,500 for each infraction and suspension from participating in federal financial aid programs.

This begs the question of whether campus administrators and law enforcement can move quickly enough to warn the campus population. The answer is yes, of course.

In today’s digitally and socially networked world, communication is probably the easiest thing going. It seems to me that warning a student and campus population could be completed in a matter of seconds. In today’s world of keeping a campus safe and secure being proactive is the order of the day. It’s better to be safe and secure than sorry.

Unfortunately, Virginia Tech isn’t the only university that has been investigated after a shooting on campus.

The highest fine was issued to an institution in 2008, when Eastern Michigan University was fined $357,500 for failing to warn those associated with the campus of a student’s assault and death. This was the Laura Dickinson incident. In addition, for not reporting the incident, EMU was fined for violating federal crime-reporting laws.

From this point forward, universities understood more clearly how to report and display crime statistics that occur on university campuses. Campus security and safety notifications changed after this incident and, with the dismissal of university president John A. Fallon, so did the EMU administration.

The Clery Act requires colleges and universities to give timely warnings of crimes that represent a threat to the safety of students or employees. A two-and-ahalf- hour lag time, such as was the case at Virginia Tech, is not timely nor does it represent the safety of students or employees.

The Clery Act is named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-yearold freshman at Lehigh University who was raped and murdered while asleep in her residence hall room on April 5, 1986. Her parents, Connie and Howard, discovered that students hadn’t been told about 38 violent crimes that occurred on their daughter’s campus in the three years before her murder. They joined with other campus crime victims and persuaded Congress to enact this law, which was originally known as the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990.

Consulting with security professionals would help universities better prepare the campus setting for safety and security. For starters, surveillance should have already made its way onto the campus. Campuses pose many unique challenges when it comes to security. A system must be carefully planned out in order to keep a watchful eye on facilities and the living fabric that are the students.

Proper video surveillance will assist in watching over everything from dormitories and libraries to sports complexes and student common areas. The proper setup will go a long way in ensuring the safety of students, faculty and facilities. Campus law enforcement would help itself by employing a security professional to help sign, seal and deliver a video surveillance system and a mass notification system to be installed on campus.

Parents trust universities with protecting their most valued asset during the four years of higher learning. Their children, our children, are the vital link to a better world tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Security Today.

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