In the wake of the ghastly massacre at Virginia Tech nearly five years ago that left more than 30 people dead, colleges and universities across the country reviewed their own mental health, public safety and emergency alert systems. In many cases, schools spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to make changes.
These reviews are often referred to as “risk management,” a term from the corporate world that was virtually unknown on many campuses a decade or two ago but has become commonplace. And at the heart of risk management is the goal of protecting institutions from tragedy and costly lawsuits.
So, in that vein, what did the 2007 shooting cost Virginia Tech and taxpayers? It’s an uncomfortable question that was posed by the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank that advocates for stricter gun control.
The center’s calculation: $48.2 million.
That bill was picked up by the university ($38.77 million), the state of Virginia ($8.87 million), the local government ($3,581) and the federal government in the form of three grants ($3.66 million). (My colleague Petula Dvorak wrote about this financial toll, along with the human one, in her column today. You can read it here.)
The Center for American Progress came up with these estimates, which it says are conservative, by using public records and asking the university to compile information about any costs sustained as a direct result of the massacre.
This university-provided accounting includes one-time expenses, such as implementing an emergency alert system, and ongoing expenses, such as hiring more campus police officers. It does not include the time and salaries of staff members, including attorneys and those who helped distraught students, grieving families and the hundreds of journalists who descended on Blacksburg.
Here’s how the $48.2 million breaks down (although not perfectly, as the center does not consistently group expenses together throughout the report, resulting in totals that don’t always match up), according to the report released by the center this week:
$11.4 million for safety and security upgrades. This was one of the largest expenditures the center found. This includes the hiring of 11 new full-time campus police department employees, including seven sworn officers. Over the past five years, the salaries for those employees has totaled $2.87 million. The university also established an Office of Emergency Management, which has cost about $900,000 to run for five years. And Virginia Tech and local agencies are opening a joint dispatch office, which so far has cost about half a million dollars. The U.S. Department of Justice gave Virginia Tech a $2.65 million grant to assist victims of the shooting, along with other recovery costs.
$6.4 million for cleanup, renovations and other facility changes. The student gunman started his April 16, 2007, rampage in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dorm where he killed two people. The university has since renovated and transformed the hall into a “residential college” with a strong emphasis on building community. Hours later the gunman barricaded himself in Norris Hall, an academic building, where he fired more than 170 rounds, killed 25 students and five faculty members, injured at least 17 others and then killed himself. The university spent $1.84 million renovating the hall and turning classrooms into a Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, which opened in 2009. Tech also spent about $2 million replacing the handles and locks on more than 1,000 doors so they could not again be barricaded.
$2.5 million for public relations and communications. As the national spotlight turned to Tech in 2007, the university paid about $600,000 to retain a public relations consulting firm for a year. The university also spent nearly $1 million on “VT Alerts,” an emergency notification system that reaches the school’s six locations in Virginia. This system was tested in December when a student from a nearby university came to Virginia Tech, shot a police officer and then killed himself. The university was locked down for four hours, and officials said the system worked as they had planned.
$4.79 million for settlement payment and other legal costs. The state government and university negotiated a $11.1 million settlement with the families of many of the victims. The university paid for $3.3 million of this settlement, and the state picked up the remainder. This category also includes the cost of compiling information and data for various investigations and lawsuits over the past five years. It does not take into account the time of university attorneys who do not track their “billable hours.”
A possible expense that is not yet included in this category: a $55,000 fine from Department of Education for not properly alerting students that a gunman was on campus. The university has appealed this fine, and last month a federal judge overturned it.
$324,258 for archiving all documents related to the shooting. As part of a $11.1 million settlement with many of the families of victims, the university agreed to collect, organize and make accessible the thousands of documents, e-mails, interviews and other materials related to the shooting. This was a one-time cost of $324,258.
$2.7 million to support survivors and families of victims. After the shooting, Tech established a “family center” at the Inn at Virginia Tech, a hotel near campus, where survivors and relatives of victims could gather, mourn and seek help. Tech also established the Office of Recovery and Support.
$7.4 million for mental health services. In the months following the shooting, university counselors provided more than 700 mental health triages, spoke to classes, visited survivors in the hospital, fielded 120 calls from parents and provided other services. Tech hired four full-time employees to add to its counseling center staff of 27. This work was partially funded by a $960,685 grant from the Department of Education.
$3.2 million in other operational expenses. This includes the $1.68 million the university paid for lifetime health insurance for survivors who suffered serious injuries, $900,000 to operate the peace and violence prevention center for its first four years, and $266,000 to cancel meetings and reservations at the Inn at Virginia Tech.
$9.47 million in state expenses, including settlements. The state’s share of the $11.1 million settlement with the families was $7.8 million. Virginia also spent nearly half a million dollars assembling a review panel to investigate the shooting, compile a report and make recommendations for the future. It also cost nearly $70,000 to conduct 32 autopsies. Virginia State Police estimate that they spent more than half a million investigating and responding to the shooting.
$590,042 in health-care costs. Since health records are not public, the center does not know how much it cost to treat students who were injured by gunshots or while escaping from Norris Hall. This estimate was calculated by the center using national averages.
A copy of the full report — “Auditing the Cost of the Virginia Tech Massacre: How Much We Pay When Killers Kill” — is available on the Center for American Progress Web site.
And here’s some of The Post’s recent coverage of the shooting and its aftermath:
Tragedy, scandal don’t have to define a school, experts say (December 2011)
Virginia Tech dorm becomes a learning experience (September 2011)