Va. Tech Review Recommends Steps to Avert Another Tragedy

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 22 -- Virginia Tech needs to improve building security, enhance its campus-wide alert system and better monitor troubled students to prevent a tragedy similar to the April 16 massacre of 32 students and faculty, according to a school review of the incident released Wednesday.

The report recommends that classrooms be equipped with electronic banners that would alert students to emergencies, that message boards be placed in hallways to provide critical information and that an electronic "people locator system" be created so that students and others could inform people of their whereabouts. Soon after the massacre, the university came under fire for not better alerting students and others to the potential dangers they faced.

The report also says that the university should add locks on the inside of classroom doors to help prevent another killer from bursting in.

"There's little doubt that April 16th has changed public expectations of the higher education community," Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said Wednesday at a news conference. "We're going to do what's necessary."

Steger said that the school will evaluate the recommendations provided by the committees and institute them based on cost and other factors over the coming months.

The three review committees that presented the report were formed by Steger days after Seung Hui Cho killed students and faculty in separate events over two hours, in what is now considered the worst shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history.

The report is different from another investigation into the shootings ordered by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and led by former state police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill. That report is expected to be released next week.

The Virginia Tech report does not assess the actions of police, university officials or others, but rather focuses on how the university could prevent similar tragedies.

The findings, which were submitted to Steger last week, focus on three critical areas: how the university's student counseling system can better track troubled students; how officials can better alert and secure students, faculty and staff during emergencies; and how to improve emergency communications during incidents. The study also points to a need for more training for university staff in privacy issues as they relate to campus safety.

The report found that "a new structure is needed to complement the work" of mental health counseling teams, especially for "students who may pose a threat to others." It also recommends that a system be designed to address complex cases such as Cho's. "The team would be charged with conducting a comprehensive fact-based description of a distressed student and empowered to act with authority," the report said.

In 2005, Cho, an English major at Virginia Tech, had frightened teachers and classmates with macabre and violent writings. He referred to himself as Question Mark, never made eye contact and rarely spoke. Several of his professors referred him to the student counseling center after talking with him in private meetings. But it wasn't until two undergraduate women complained that Cho sent unwanted instant messages and left cryptic lines from "Romeo and Juliet" on their dry-erase boards that Cho came to the attention of police. Although the girls decided not to press charges, police met with Cho on Dec. 13 and warned him to leave the women alone.

University officials would not say whether Cho had been identified by the existing unit assigned to monitor students deemed "at risk."

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