Campus shooting shows Va. Tech lessons are being learned

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, December 17, 2009

When the U.S. history class in Room 312 heard the two gunshots in the room directly above it, followed shortly by a student shouting at the door to call 911 because "there's a shooter," professor Bill Rhatican knew what steps to take. He had the class lock the door, turn out the lights and put down the blinds.

Some scared students huddled in a corner amid nervous comments about past school killings at Virginia Tech and Columbine, but Rhatican put the group at ease.

"The teacher calmed everyone down. He really took control," said student Kevin Rogers, 19, of Manassas.

Rhatican said he did nothing special. He was just following procedures outlined in an e-mail to faculty earlier this year. "The college had put together an emergency plan, and this was what we were supposed to do," he said.

His poise was one of several examples of effective preparation and response by the college and police in last week's shooting on the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College. Swarms of Prince William County police began arriving within two to three minutes of the shots. An emergency response team at the school's office in Annandale, 20 miles away, coordinated via phone and Internet while staff in Woodbridge were stuck in an extended lockdown in their offices.

There were some hiccups, and authorities don't get credit for the fact that nobody was hurt. The 20-year-old suspect missed when he allegedly fired at a math teacher who'd given him a poor grade. Then his rifle jammed, and he waited to be arrested.

Nevertheless, the reaction to the Dec. 8 incident suggests that there's been progress in handling so-called active shooter situations that are a worry on every campus and schoolyard. It encourages me to believe that next time, when the shooter's weapon functions properly, chances will be better of avoiding, or at least minimizing, death and injury.

Some of the lessons drawn from the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings led directly to the performance last week. The response plan was developed after NVCC created the job of director of emergency planning a few months after the Blacksburg killings. Since then the school has intensified training of faculty and staff, added emergency notification equipment and stepped up cooperation with local police.

"Since Virginia Tech, the police department has been training constantly with local jurisdictions," said Cheryl Creed, NVCC's acting police chief. Two days before the incident, the school's police team had gone through a mandatory, eight-hour training session where they practiced a scenario in which a student shot a teacher. One of the participants was the campus officer whose quick radio call triggered the rapid response.

"Everything that was done on Tuesday, we had practiced on Sunday," Creed said.

The county and campus police continued the lockdown for about three hours even after the arrest of the suspect, in case there were others. Virginia Tech didn't order a shutdown and delayed notifying the campus after the first two people were shot, arousing criticism afterward that earlier action might have prevented 30 additional people from being killed in a different building more than two hours later.

"We erred on the side of caution and kept the lockdown until we could complete the search and evacuation," Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said.

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