Mandate for Mass Notification
- By Ralph C. Jensen
- May 01, 2012
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
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.