Category Archives: Emergency Communication

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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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.]

Emergency Communication Problems Highlighted by the Virginia Tech Shooting

The 2008 Virginia Tech shooting resulted in a transformation of emergency communication procedures by highlighting existing flaws in institutional polices and federal law — the changes made will be the subject of future blog posts. For this blog, I wish to set the scene by explicating exactly what went wrong on 16th April, 2007, when a school shooting attack occurred at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University — this will be shorted to Virginia Tech University for ease of reading.

The inquiry ordered by the Virginia Governor, Tim Kaine, into the actions of Virginia Tech University officials circumscribed the mistakes made on the day of the shooting. One of the major problems highlighted by VTRP (2007/2009) was there were inconsistencies between the institutional emergency communication policy, which listed the Policy Group (VTPG) and Police Department (VTPD) as being authorised parties for releasing emergency alerts, and the emergency management plan, denoting that the campus police department, despite having the authority to develop or request an alert, had to wait for the university’s policy group to deliberate and then either approve or reject the request — the latter option was the one followed on the day of the shooting, as campus police did not have the computer code needed to issue an emergency message campus-wide.

Another problem was there were no templates of messages for different scenarios when such a measure would have allowed for a more expeditious process of sending alerts. Virginia Tech University’s emergency management plans prior to the shooting centred on natural disasters (weather problems and fires) and acts of terrorism in a post 9/11 context, with varying levels of severity ranging from zero to three. Surprisingly perhaps, given it occurred in a post-Columbine environment, there were no provisions in place for a school shooting scenario — this could perhaps be attributable to the fact that most school shootings until that point had occurred in middle and high schools rather than colleges and universities. Consequently, the content of the emergency notification sent to staff and students at 9:26am was not very specific or urgent in its warnings:

A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston [dorm] earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. Contact Virginia Tech Police at 231–6411. Stay tuned to the [webpage] http://www.vt.edu. We will post as soon as we have more information.

The second message sent at 9:50am, ten minutes after the perpetrator had begun shooting again, this time in Norris Hall, was more specific and direct: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.” As it transpired, the VTRP (2007/2009) investigators concluded that if the emergency alert had been more urgent or advised specific actions, this could have alerted more people to suspicious activities and hence enhanced their chances of survival.

Notably, it could be argued that the most severe mistake was the delay in sending the message. In the VTRP (2007/2009) documents, a timeline of events shows that, after the dorm shooting, Virginia Tech University engaged in actions such as locking down its Center for Professional and Continuing Education and cancelling bank deposits for that day. At 8:45am, a member of the Policy Group emailed a colleague in Richmond stating “Gunman on the loose. This is not releasable yet” and, four minutes later, sent another one saying “just try to make sure it doesn’t get out.” Schools in nearby Blacksburg went into lockdown at 8:52am. Despite this, the first alert to students and staff at Virginia Tech was sent at 9:26am, twenty-one minutes after the first period started; although a technical error delayed the message for a further fifteen minutes so it was actually sent at about 9:10am. The review panel members surmised that had the message been released before 8:30am, this could then have been possibly received by students and staff before they left for the first class of the day, given most of the people would already be in class or walking to class at 9:26am and thus unlikely to have the opportunity or even the need to check their email accounts.

As it transpired, the official review came to the conclusion that the high death toll of the Virginia Tech shooting was attributable to the delay in communication and that the Policy Group and, to a lesser extent, the campus Police Department, are responsible for this. The authors of the review do acknowledge, however, that Cho is highly likely to have carried out a mass shooting that day anyway given his intentions to do so; it might have been elsewhere if the university plan had been thwarted. This chain of events resulted in Virginia Tech University changing its institutional policies, updating tits technologies and a lawsuit filed by some of the relatives of those killed — these will all be discussed in future blogs.

[Material from this blog originally appeared in a chapter in the book Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. Future blogs will expand on this, by noting the policy changes to institutions, law and technologies after the Virginia Tech shooting.]