Monthly Archives: August 2014

Punishing Educational Institutions for School Shootings: The Case of Virginia Tech University and ‘Timely Warnings’

As the last blog documented, the attributions of blame after a school shooting tend to focus on parties that are claimed to have failed to notice the warning signs given by the perpetrators and/or respond to the shooting properly. School shooting lawsuits are predicated on varying degrees of blame: firstly, the assumption that the schools are partly to blame for not pre-empting the shooting (whilst full responsibility for the attack would lie with the perpetrators who carried them out); secondly, that they are either partly or wholly responsible for their response to the attack. Establishing this blame against schools is the lawsuit which has a twofold purpose: getting the school to accept some responsibility regarding their negligence (i.e. acknowledging that they have failed to properly fulfil their institutional duties) and receiving monetary compensation. The accountability dimension has the additional purpose of making an example of the schools in question and, by implication, motivating other schools to ensure that such an attack does not occur on their premises. This idea is backed up by Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory that the primary purpose of punishment is to deter others. The imposition of a ‘negative wage,’ an undesirable payment of compensation settled by the wrongdoer, is the secondary component of this punishment. Monetary compensation paid by the wrongdoer has been the case in early Roman, Norse and English law and was typically awarded to the head of a household when a person or animal in their household was unjustly killed. Interestingly, in most languages, the notions of payment and punishment have been interconnected: for instance, in English there is the phrase ‘pay the penalty.’

The postings on the 23rd and 30th July discussed the delay in alerting staff and students the day of the Virginia Tech incident. As it transpired, the delay in communication constituted a violation of federal law, resulting in Virginia Tech being fined fifty-five thousand dollars by the U.S. Department of Education. The university appealed this and it was decided in early 2012 by the Education’s Chief Administrative Judge that the fine should be overturned. In late 2012, however, this fine was partially reinstated by the U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who ruled that the university should pay a twenty-seven and a half thousand dollar fine for their alleged failure to provide a ‘timely warning’ on the day of the attack. The argument by the attorney of the claimants was that, upon hearing about the WAJ dorm shootings, the university locked down its Center for Professional and Continuing Education and cancelled that day’s bank deposits. These actions were said to have demonstrated ‘concerns that the crime might represent a continuing threat to the campus,’ yet steps were not taken to relay this information to students and staff until later on. In addition to this, ‘the respondent had not located the suspect, had not found the weapon, and was confronted with the distinct possibility that the gunman was armed and still at large.’

With that line of thought in mind, a number of the families of those killed and injured in the Virginia Tech incident filed claims for the attacks and received an eleven million dollar settlement from the state. Recently, the parents of two students killed brought a case against the university predicated on the basis that their daughters may have survived if communication had been more prompt. According to the attorney of the families, the evidence of the error was ‘the bodies of the young people on the floors of Norris Hall.’ Virginia Tech President, Charles Steger, and other VT officials attempted to counteract that charge by stating the VTPD investigation was misleading, because it concluded that the WAJ murders were the result of a domestic dispute rather than the start of a school shooting. In the end, the jury found the university negligent and the two families were awarded damages. The mother of one of the victims was quoted as stating: ‘Today we got what we wanted. The truth is out there.’ This gives further credence to the idea that these lawsuits act as a means of highlighting answerability.

[Material for this blog has been published in a chapter in the edited volume Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. The next blog post will return to the issue of threat assessment and managing threats post-incident.]

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Lawsuits and School Shootings: Punishment, Blame and Accountability

When a school shooting occurs and students and staff are killed or injured, attributions of blame are, not surprisingly, made. The most obvious and accountable recipients would be the perpetrator(s) of the school shooting attack themselves; however, there are two main issues with this. First of all, as the blog published on the 8th June 2014 documented, school shooters tend to commit suicide immediately after the attack. Secondly, and most importantly, the act of imposing legal penalties in a democratic society tends to be formalised and institutionalised. Since victims and their families are unable to ‘punish’ the perpetrators themselves, punishment is instead shifted onto other parties, such as the parents of the perpetrators, the entertainment industry, gun manufacturers, and so forth. There are, however, issues with pursuing cases against these particular groups.

In the case of parents, the monetary value of these lawsuits tends to be low in comparison to others since the amount is determined by the individuals’ insurance policies. After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, parents of the two perpetrators resolved lawsuits with a blanket settlement of almost one point six million dollars to be shared amongst several families of those killed; these lawsuits were predicated on claims that the parents had allegedly failed to notice that their children were making bombs and planning the attack months in advance. One of the victim’s parents, Brian Rohrbough, outlined his impetus for the lawsuit: “What I know from the Klebolds and the Harrises is they have an awful lot to answer for and neither one is willing to do so.” With that in mind, it certainly seems that the motivation behind these lawsuits could be to receive explanations from those most closely involved with the perpetrators. However, these lawsuits usually fail to be resolved, given the numerous difficulties involved in proving a parent’s culpability for crimes their children have committed.

With past lawsuits levelled against the entertainment industry, the argument has been that its violent content resulted in a ‘copycat effect’ where the perpetrators emulated what was shown. For instance, an unsuccessful lawsuit was brought against the producers of the film The Basketball Diaries and a number of video game companies by the parents of three murdered victims after the 1997 Heath High School shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky. Given that violent media content involves the expression of ideas, it falls under the realm of the ‘protection of free speech’ pursuant to the First Amendment of the US Constitution and hence these types of lawsuits tend to collapse. It has been suggested that the motivation for filing these lawsuits with low chances of success is to ‘express outrage’ at what has happened and to further the debate on the causes of such violence and ways to change or regulate violent media content.

Those involved in gun production and selling also seem to be another viable target of lawsuits, with their being held responsible for crimes committed with weapons they manufactured and sold. In the past, a successful case was brought against Bushmaster, the manufacturers of a semi-automatic weapon used in the 2002 Washington, D.C. sniper attacks, for a settlement of two and a half million dollars. This case was considered a huge loss for the gun industry and so an immunity law has since been implemented which offers gun makers and retailers protection from lawsuits, except in cases where they knowingly violated a state or federal law pertaining to guns and this then resulted in someone being injured or killed. Therefore, changes in law have made the gun industry a less viable target in the aftermath of school shootings, unless evidence exists that violations of gun laws have taken place.

With all this in mind, the school itself then seems a more viable target for lawsuits. The main arguments against the schools are that they failed to notice the warning signs given by the perpetrators and/or that they did not respond to the shooting properly. In the next blog, I will use the specific example of the lawsuit filed against Virginia Tech University for the delay in communication on the 16th April 2007.

[Material for this blog has been published in a chapter in the edited volume Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. The next blog will examine the issue of lawsuits following school shootings in more detail by using the specific case study of the Virginia Tech shooting.]

LiveSafe: The Transformation of Emergency Communication

As the blogs posted on the 23rd and 30th July discussed, the Virginia Tech incident gave salience to the issue of ‘emergency alerts’ during crises. This led to a transformation in ‘emergency communication’ in Virginia Tech University’s policies and higher education institutions throughout the nation. It also created a gap in the market for the emergency communication smartphone application LiveSafe (www.LiveSafe.ly). This is available to download for free anywhere in the U.S., therefore is technically for everyone to use; however, its main usage is around higher education institutions and a couple of high schools in the East Coast. The image below shows the home screen of the app:

WVU Home Sceen

Its features mainly centre on reporting potential threats or being able to deal with a crisis should it occur. The features of this app allow: people to report crimes or other incidents such as car accidents and features a two way communicative feature with the police; tracking of users’ locations; a mass emergency notification resource; safety mapping of incidents.

LiveSafe Homescreen

The screenshot below is the most recent version of how to submit tips in a non-emergency situation.

WVU Tip Select

This is then translated into the ‘map’ feature, which can be seen by all subscribers. Incidents such as shooting incidents, fires and car accidents are initially reported through the ‘dashboard’ feature and information like pictures, videos and audio shows up on the computers of affiliated law enforcement organisations allowing them to investigate incidents. Once the police have verified an incident is correct, it shows up on its ‘map’ feature and this data is amalgamated for each higher education institution. The federal legislation ‘Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act’(1991) requires higher education institutions to log and publicise information about crimes committed on or near campuses in an annual crime report. The LiveSafe application, therefore, allows higher education institutions to be more transparent by drawing attention to any crime or safety problems on campuses. The rationale of it is to make safety a more natural and everyday entity. Given the findings of theorists who have studied fear of crime that precautionary action, such as being more aware and having tools to reduce victimisation, can negate anxiety about crime, it certainly seems that ‘naturalising’ safety to make it a commonplace occurrence could be useful in managing fear.

LiveSafe Map Function

Furthermore, it has a ‘broadcast tab’ feature that allows users to send messages (text, email or voice) to all other subscribers, with pre-set templates to save time. The traditional format of ‘broadcasting’ emergency alerts combines with smartphone technology in LiveSafe to allow individuals to take control of both sending and receiving crisis communication messages. This application also allows users to ‘check in’ during a crisis, providing them with an alternative to the traditional media format of making a telephone call.

LiveSafe Broadcast Feature

It also has a feature ‘call police (911)’ or ‘message police,’ which potentially be used in emergency situations where one wants to be discrete. During the Virginia Tech shooting many students had to ‘play dead’ to survive, so an inconspicuous way to communicate with emergency services would have been very useful under those circumstances. The app, however, is only to be used to contact emergency services under circumstances where there are no other options. Possibly it could also be used by users who are unable to call the police, because of language barriers (LiveSafe translates tips submitted in non-English languages) and disabilities, such as being mute.

WVU Call Police

Allowing for communication during a crisis and an alternative form of emergency calling could potentially mean that LiveSafe allows for insecurities about the risk of crime and safety concerns to be managed through taking precautions. This app may be downloaded from https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/livesafe/id653666211?ls=1&mt=8 for iphones and https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.livesafe.activities&hl=en for Android.

[This blog was put together with results from a qualitative interview with a LiveSafe spokesperson. A fuller version of this piece is published in my doctoral thesis and may appear in publications in future.]