Virginia Tech: Campus Security

Alison Kiss
Program Director, Security on Campus Inc.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007; 2:00 PM

What happened at Virginia Tech on Monday has raised many questions about security on campus. Those issues are discussed in Security Watch, a national newsletter and Web site dedicated to safer campuses for students and established by Connie and Howard Clery following the rape and murder of their daughter Jeanne at Lehigh University in 1986.

Alison Kiss, program director of Security on Campus Inc., was online Wednesday, April 18, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss security measures and recommendations for Virginia Tech as well as other colleges across the U.S.

A transcript follows.


Alison Kiss: Good afternoon. I am the Program Director at Security On Campus, Inc., a National Non-Profit dedicated to safer campuses for college students. We are behind the six federal laws dealing with college campus safety. I am available to answer any questions that you may have surrounding the incident at Virginia Technology Institute and State College that occurred on Monday.


Annandale, Va.: What are the students on campus saying about the police response and how the whole thing was handled? Is this a matter of it all being in hindsight?

Alison Kiss: The students are wondering why they were not alerted of the incident that happened early in the morning until two hours later. Part of the federal law that our organization spearheaded, The Clery Act, requires campuses to issue timely warnings in the event of a current or on-going threat to student safety. With a shooter at large, the campus should have issued an immediate warning to the campus community via text message or by having security at campus buildings. The least secure buildings on campuses are the academic buildings.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you think the response on campus to the shootings from the police between the two locations was insufficient?

Alison Kiss: Absolutely. I believe that the response should have been more immediate and classes should have been cancelled following the first shooting.


Charlottesville, Va.: In your opinion, would outfitting college and university classroom buildings with metal dectectors and other additional security items stop something like what happened at Virginia Tech?

Alison Kiss: No, because the shooter was a student and if someone intends to commit an act such as this and give their life, it is hard to deter them from doing this. I do think that campuses should beef up their security but this generally depends on the budget that is allotted to campus security forces. Many times, administrations will cut their security budgets. More importantly, schools should have thorough crisis management plans in place and those plans should be revisited at least 4 times a year. The institutions should also prescribe to parental notification policies where parents of students are notified in the event that their student is involved in alcohol, drugs or criminal activities.


Baltimore: Is it true that Va. Tech one of the most "wired" schools in the nation? I've heard that. If so, how can this kind of resource be used in the future to alert students about future possible threats to life on the campus?

Alison Kiss: The warning was issued via internet but because many students were in transit, they did not receive the alert. There are inexpensive text message alert systems in place at around 35 campuses that provide campus security an easy, inexpensive, and highly effective method to notify the campus community in the event of a threat to their safety.


Washington, D.C.: I think this drumbeat of "they should have locked down the campus" after the first shooting is ludicrous and logistically impossible. NO ONE could have predicted that the first incident would have led to the second horrific carnage. I mean when was the last time law enforcment had to secure so many people in such a sprawling area? Here in Washington or anywhere else, can you imagine the outrage if an equivalent area was cordoned off following a killing that was believed to be a domestic dispute? Most people can't even tolerate being inconvenienced at the airport let alone in their own neigbhborhoods. Acting with what they knew at the time, the Tech president and police made the right choice. Do people really expect law enforcement to react as if every shooting could be a precursor to a rampage?

Alison Kiss: Since the shooter from the first attack had not been detained, it is imperative that the campus shut down until the safety of the community is maintained. This year, there was a shooting very close to the campus of Villanova University and the campus, as well as the surrounding community, shut down and postponed classes until they were certain that the shooter was in custody. Although these acts cannot always be predicted, the community could have been better protected with a more thorough warning.


McLean, Va.: How do you feel about gun control and do you think what happened will change the current law in Virginia? Other states? Isn't that a very hard thing to do?

Alison Kiss: There is a law that prohibits carrying a gun on campuses in Virginia but it is simply too easy for an individual to obtain a weapon either legally or illegally. Even though I am personally in favor of stricter gun control laws, legislation alone will probably not summarily deter individuals bent on mass murder. Other steps would need to be taken.


Kassel, Germany: Isn't it true that campus police simply are not trained for so-called "shooters", etc.?

Alison Kiss: No, that is not true, Campuses generally employ either sworn or unsworn police forces. Sworn police forces are in fact similar to those in small cities. In fact, in Pennsylvania, Temple University is the third largest police force next to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Many campus security staffs are very well-trained to handle crime.


Gainesville, Fa.: While lock downs may be better at k-12 schools I don't think they work well at colleges. And they don't work at all if the gunman is already inside a building. Then the opposite would be true which is to run for the hills. Would you agree?

Alison Kiss: I agree that a lock-down is easier to execute in a primary or secondary school. In the event that there is a threat on a college campus, it is important to secure the academic buildings and cancel classes as those are the most vunerable buildings on campus.


Washington, D.C.: How do you balance between closing the university for what could be an isolated incident versus the need for uninterrupted classes? I went to school in an urban setting and people did get shot (and, at least once on campus). The university never canceled classes. Yes, it was a tragedy, but life must go on, and not in a police state. Several of us work in a city where violent crime does occur. Even during the sniper shootings, I still went to work. Do you suggest evacuating the city everytime someone commits a homicide? Can you illustrate the difference?

Alison Kiss: Sure. In this case, Virginia Tech is in fact the size of a small city. After the first shooting, there were reports that the perpetrator "may have been in custody." The school has a responsibility to the campus community to provide a warning to the campus that there may still be a shooter at large. The Clery Act requires that the campus issue a timely warning if there is a current or on-going threat to student safety. This federal law would also mandate your alma mater to do the same when shootings did occur there. Also, the school is responsible to have a crisis management plan in place to protect its students.


Pittsburgh: Do you think laws should be tightened to make it easier to commit involuntarily, and hold, the mentally ill? What changes would have been enough to institutionalize Cho? Would a loss of freedoms for others be worth the trade-off? Where is the balance between security and freedom?

Alison Kiss: If someone threatens to take their life or the life of another, then a menatl health professional can involuntarily commit the person. I do not believe that it should be easier to involuntarily commit the mentally ill. I do believe that Cho's parents should have been notified, Virginia Tech does employ a parental notification policy, after he set fires and showed stalking behavior patterns. These are criminal actions and parental notification policies permit schools to notify parents if their student shows signs of criminal behavior.


Washington, D.C.: It sounds like there should be a town meeting on this. Is that a good idea?

Alison Kiss: I think this is a great idea. It is important, especially, for university administration and security throughout the country to revisit their crisis management plans.


Arlington, Va.: Alison Kiss: "The students are wondering why they were not alerted of the incident that happened early in the morning until two hours later."

This is what the media is feeding you, not what the large portion of students and alumni believe. Why is the media not showing the standing ovation that Mr. Steger received at yesterday's convocation? Well, because it doesn't add to the controversy and makes their reports less interesting.

Alison Kiss: We have been contacted by students and their parents regarding concerns around this issue and the delay in warning the community. I think the school is doing a lot to bring students together to mourn this tragedy. I think the media is doing a great job in showing the strength of the students and campus community as they remember their classmates.


Washington, D.C.:"Since the shooter from the first attack had not been detained, it is imperative that the campus shut down until the safety of the community is maintained."

LOTS of shooters get away. The difference, I think, is that most shooters aren't intent on killing several people. Most just want to elude the police and escape the scene. How can law enforcement tell the difference?

Alison Kiss: Law enforcement, in this case, has a responsibility to their campus population. If they were not certain that he escaped or had been detained, federal law requires law enforcement to issue a warning to the community.


Bowie, Md.: I hope people stop looking too much into hindsight and realize that the powers-that-be simply cannot anticipate when someone is determined to cause harm and death. And had there been the lockdown everyone was calling for, he would have just walked into the dorms and started firing.

A question:

If guns weren't so easy to obtain, was this guy crazy enough that he would have figured something else out? I doubt it. Don't security people feel that way about their availability?

Alison Kiss: I do personally believe that there should be stricter gun laws but the problem is that guns are easily obtained both legally and illegally.


Washington, D.C.: Considering how this situation was handled should I not allow my child to attend school at Virginia Tech?

Alison Kiss: I believe that Virginia Tech will certainly review their crisis management plans and may in fact be safer then ever in the upcoming years. This is an incident that could happen anywhere. I would not encourage you to not send your child to the school. I believe that all schools should revisit their security protocals and plans following this incident.


New York, N.Y.: Everyone needs to stop blaming the school and the police. The focus should be on caring and praying for the victims, their families and all those closely affected.

I also find it surprising that not a single story has mentioned the possibility that the shooter might have carried out the first shooting intentionally as a diversion to throw off the police. I don't think this is so far fetched considering how cold and calculated this individual was.

Let the VT school officials and police carry out their investigation and more importantly, let them grieve. Join in helping to heal and unite and not in trying to divide and blame.

Alison Kiss: I agree that we must grieve and pray. Unfortunately, over the past few years we have seen a trend in such violent acts. It is important to be forarmed with a plan to protect campus communities.


Washington, D.C.: If they had gone to lockdown, as some have suggested, wouldn't that have simply ensured that an angry armed man would be trapped in a large dormitory with scores of potential victims? With a small police force, how is a university of that size going to achieve meaningful "lockdown"?

Alison Kiss: We advocate to shut down the least secure building, the Academic buildings, in a lock down and to have students in residence halls lock their doors. Since Cho was a student, he had access to the residence halls so it may have put those students in danger. If a more timely warning were issued, these students would have also been more aware of what had been happening.


Washington, D.C.: So it sounds like you are saying: a lockdown would not have saved any lives, but the university was negligent in not sending out an alert right after they found the first two bodies. That seems reasonable: 26,000 pairs of eyes on alert is better than just the Va. Tech police force looking for a suspicious, possibly blood-stained suspect. But that negligence hardly rises to the level of heinous crime with which the media is charging the Va. Tech president.

Alison Kiss: Yes. A more immediate warning should have been issued and I still believe that the academic buildings should have been secured.


Albany, N.Y.: The New York Times is reporting that university police were told by Emily Hilscher's roommate that her boyfriend (?) had guns in his house, which led the police to look for and find him. Why shut down campus when you have what looks like a solid lead?

Alison Kiss: There was no shooter in custody. It is necessary to be precautious.


Baltimore: Much has been made of the fact that VaTech is a largely commuter school. Wouldn't it have been possible to contact security near the parking lots and inform commuters as they arrived of the first shooting? A simple flyer near the gates would have put more people on alert.

Alison Kiss: I agree. Also, local radio stations could have been used as a method to alert students.


Washington, D.C.: How much of a say in all this do the students have?

Alison Kiss: I am not aware on how much of a say the students have. There is a lot of mourning that needs to be done and many feelings of sadness, anger, and confusion. Generally, Students should be involved in safety on their campuses since it is their community.


Legal liability?: How much do you imagine Tech will have to pay out in settlements of lawsuits for the deaths and injuries to Monday's victims?

Alison Kiss: I am sure there may be lawsuits involved but not certain if the school will be held liable or not since that is no my area of expertise.


Burke, Va.: Do you have any idea how many students on college campuses around the country carry guns? Do you think more will now?

Alison Kiss: I do not have an idea of how many students carry guns but I hope that less will as a result of this incident.


Washington, D.C.: What will the commission be doing that Gov. Kaine announced?

Alison Kiss: I believe we are still waiting to hear the exact mission of the commission. I suspect that it will investigate the response as well as revisit ideas for crisis management plans for state institutions.


Kalamazoo, Mich.: Many guns rights advocates have pointed to Virginia's law banning concealed weapons on college campuses led to the wider tragedy in Norris Hall and that if students/faculty had been armed they could have confronted/stopped the shooter before he killed so many students. Personally, I find the argument completely ludicrus and would never want to attend a school that allowed people to have guns in their rooms. What's your take on this issue? Could students carrying concealed weapons have prevented this tragedy? Would we have wanted them to?

Alison Kiss: I agree with you and would not want to see students carrying concealed weapons on campuses.


Fairfax, Va.: Is it true that the campus police did not notify the state police when the first shootings occurred? I can't imagine why not. Have they given a reason? Do you think the state police should have been called in those two hours?

Alison Kiss: I do think that the school should have called for assistance from state police given the gravity of the situation.


Alison Kiss: Thank you for your opinions and questions. Although we may not always agree, it is important to mourn and remember the many students and faculty who lost their lives a s a result of this senseless act of violence.


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