Tag Archives: Virginia Tech University

Campus Police as ‘Full Law Enforcement’: Widening the Jurisdiction

The previous two blogs have discussed the issue of policing in the form of SROs in K-12 schooling and external law enforcement agencies; this post will now turn to look at the transformation of law enforcement in colleges and universities across the United States. Similar to the alterations which took place at K-12 schools after the Columbine shooting (refer to the previous two blogs for more details), the impetus for change at further and higher education institutes occurred after the tragic incident at Virginia Tech University in 2007.
To begin with, an investigation carried out at the request of the President into the circumstances around the Virginia Tech shooting found that there were a number of limitations with the current status of law enforcement. (1) It was found that campus police felt that they were not considered to be ‘full law enforcement’ by students, campus officials and officers from external law enforcement departments. The ‘legitimacy’ of police is of key important in convincing people to trust their decisions and follow their orders. (2) Concurrently, the report ordered by the Governor of Virginia, recommended that the mission statements of campus police should give precedence to their role as crime prevention officials. (3) This was subsequently translated into policy at Virginia Tech University, where the jurisdiction of the campus police department was expanded to give it the same authority as law enforcement agencies to do the following activities: make arrests, conduct investigations, enact security procedures, enforce laws and approve building modifications. Additionally, the police and rescue departments have been amalgamated into one facility, hence cementing the legitimacy of their position. (4) Rationalising and redefining the roles of police to deal with crime relates to the ‘culture of crime control,’ where government agencies alone — in this case, educational institutions — are not trusted to manage the risk. (5)
On another note, the report prepared at the request of the president noted that many campus police departments are under-staffed and lack critical resources. (6) At Virginia Tech University, funds of $487, 400 were appropriated by its executive vice president to employ eleven new members of staff in the campus police department. The police department currently has forty-nine officers, ten dispatchers, eight security guards and five support personnel. Equipment was also procured by the university: marked cars to increase visibility of police; uniforms for security guards; rifles for patrol officers. (7) Once again, this brings to mind the idea of ‘militarism’ within law enforcement, where the weaponry of the military is utilised as a problem-solving tool. (8) Overall, these actions are tangible indicators of the institution ‘doing something,’ further strengthening the legitimacy of campus police in their role of managing school shootings and other threats faced.

[This blog was formed using analyses of federal and state policy documents published in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting, alongside relevant academic readings. It wraps up the theme of law enforcement changes following school shootings that have been the focus of the last few blog posts.]

(1) Leavitt, M. O., A. R. Gonzales, and M. Spelling. (2007) ‘Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy.’ 13 June, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
(2) Tyler, T. R. (2011) ‘Trust and legitimacy: Policing in the USA and Europe.’ European Journal of Criminology 8(4), 254-266.
(3) Virginia Tech Review Panel. (2009) ‘Mass shootings at Virginia Tech April 16, 2007: Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel presented to Timothy M. Kaine, Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia (updated edition).’ November. http://www.vtreviewpanel.org/report/index.html.
(4) Internal policy documents ‘University Safety and Security’ and ‘Crisis and Emergency Management Plan,’ both published throughout 2012.
(5) Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
(6) Leavitt, M. O., A. R. Gonzales, and M. Spelling. (2007) ‘Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy.’ 13 June, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
(7) Internal policy documents ‘University Safety and Security’ and ‘Crisis and Emergency Management Plan,’ both published throughout 2012.
(8) Kraska, P. B. (2007) ‘Militarization and Policing – Its Relevance to 21st Century Police.’ Policing 1(4), 501-513.

Students and Guns in the United States: What is the ‘Concealed Carry on Campus’ movement?

The last post explored the feelings of blame aimed at the ban on allowing staff and students to carry concealed firearms at Virginia Tech University. This post intends to expand upon this idea of an individual being responsible for their own safety, detailing what the ‘concealed carry on campus’ movement actually entails. Concealed carry laws at public colleges and universities generally fall into three categories: completely banning firearms on campus, including for ‘concealed carry permit’ holders; allowing individual institutions to determine whether to allow concealed carry on campus through mandatory or discretionary policies; allowing permit holders to carry their weapons on campus. Overall, thirty and nineteen states follow into the second and third categories respectively. (1) The movement known as ‘concealed carry on campus’ aims to achieve the third category of allowing students and staff to carry concealed firearms at public colleges and universities.
The official reports sanctioned by the government after the Virginia Tech shooting recommended that educational institutions continue to prohibit guns in campus. (2) Despite this advice, there were still a number of concealed carry on campus proposals after the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy. In 2008, Utah’s state Supreme Court concluded that, in order to comply with state law, higher and further education institutes did not have the authority to ban on guns on campus and so it became legally viable. The Utah case then became a model for other proposals in seventeen states in 2008, all of which failed. In 2013, five states introduced bills to forbidden concealed firearms on campus; however, all of these failed. At the present time, the states of Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin now allow concealed carry on campus.(3)
Further complicating matters are two United States Supreme Court cases putting some legal parameters on this debate: the Heller (2008)ruling maintained that the second amendment protected an individual’s right to a firearm in the home; whilst McDonald (2010) incorporated this right into the laws of states and localities, so any policies have to take this into account. Further complicating matters, the Heller ruling did not specify whether the right to carry firearms for self-defence purposes applied only to the home. The Heller and McDonald rulings also favoured retaining concealed carry bans in ‘sensitive places’ like government buildings and schools. Of particular interest in the ‘ concealed carry campus debate’ is that educational institutions fall under the rubric of ‘sensitive places’ as defined by Heller; however, at the same time, it is unclear whether this only applies to K-12 schooling where minors are present. The fact that colleges and universities do hold K-12 field trips and education camps and so forth may strengthen the ‘sensitive places’ argument.(4)
Consequently, it remains to be seen whether this movement will gain legislative traction in a post-Heller world. Despite this, the fear driving the desire to have concealed firearms on campus is ever-present — the next few blog posts will further elucidate the linkages between fear and this movement.

[This blog post was put together by reading the works of legal scholars and findings from the National Conference of State Legislatures. The next few blog posts will interrogate this movement further, looking at the reasons why people support it and the possible problems with the reality of allowing concealed firearms at colleges and universities.]

(1) See: L. M. Wasserman, ‘Gun Control on College and University Campuses in the Wake of District of Columbia V. Heller and McDonald V. City of Chicago,’ Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 19(1), 2011: 4, 6. It is important to note that these restrictions apply to state-sponsored colleges and universities; hence, private institutions determine their own restrictions.
(2) Leavitt, Michael O., Alberto R. Gonzales, and Margaret Spelling (2007) ‘Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy.’ 13 June, Washington, D.C.:U.S. Department of Justice
Virginia Tech Review Panel. (2009) ‘Mass shootings at Virginia Tech April 16, 2007: Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel presented to Timothy M. Kaine, Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia (updated edition)’ November. Available at: http://www.governor.virginia.gov/tempcontent/techPanelReport-docs/VT_Addendum_12-2-2009.pdf
(3) National Conference of State Legislatures.(2015) ‘Guns on Campus: An Overview.’ Available at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/guns-on-campus-overview.aspx
(4) For further information, consult the following scholars: Joan H. Miller, ‘The Second Amendment Goes to College,’ Seattle University Law Review 35, 2011: 248; J. E. Pratt, ‘A First Amendment-Inspired Approach to Heller’s “Schools” and “Government Buildings,’ Nebraska Law Review 92, 2013: 618, 620; M. Rogers, ‘Guns on Campus: Continuing Controversy,’ Journal of College and University Law 38(3), 2012: 665; M. L. Smith, ‘Second Amendment Challenges to Student Housing Firearms Bans: The Strength of the Home Analogy,’ Law Review 60, 2013, 1053.

“An armed student could have saved so many lives”: Blaming the Virginia Tech Shootings on the Concealed Carry Ban

The quote in the title exemplifies the idea circulating in online discourses[1] that the 32 tragic deaths at the Virginia Tech University shooting could have been prevented if students and staff had been permitted to carry concealed firearms on campus. This is explicated in statements such as these: “If only one person in that classroom had been armed, he might not have killed so many”; “One law-abiding armed citizen could have taken down the shooter after the first couple of shots.” Through speculative propositions with reference to the term ‘armed,’ it may be inferred that the circumstances shaping this are the lack of firearms. To some degree, online commentators blame ‘regulatory failures,’ where the ban in place is held accountable for students not being able to take the ‘appropriate precautions’[2] of carrying firearms to campus.

To take this argument further, for many users, the shooting at Virginia Tech represents an example of what can transpire when students are not allowed to carry weapons: “People thought Virginia Tech was safe, didn’t they?”; “Virginia Tech…enough said”; “Look at what happened at Virginia Tech.” The theorist Ferraro did say that fear of crime involves an “emotional response of dread or anxiety to crime or symbols a person associates with crime.”[3] It could be said that the shooting at Virginia Tech evokes images of horror and dread and is a ‘buzzword’ for the ‘worst gun massacre ever.’ Further to this, it appears that second-hand understandings of what took place at Virginia Tech — such as students hiding under desks waiting to be saved — are allowing for such perceptions to crystallise in a number of users.

In a similar vein, a video containing an interview with Virginia Tech survivor, Colin Goddard, who has worked with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led to outrage and anger from a lot of online debaters. Some displayed incredulity that Colin was against concealed carry on campus, stating that it was these rules which prevented him and his peers from ‘defending themselves.’ Such a sentiment was echoed by the Gun Owners of America’s Executive Director, Larry Pratt, who stated in the immediate aftermath of the shooting: “All the school shootings that have ended abruptly in the last ten years were stopped because a law-abiding citizen — a potential victim — had a gun…”[4] The terminology used here is indicative of an idealistic stance that a ‘law-abiding citizen’ was able to prevent themselves from becoming a ‘victim.’ The ‘solution’ to the problem is deemed by some to be allowing for concealed carry on campus — this will discussed in the next blog post.

[This post was put together using the results from critical discourse analyses of comment threads in thirty-two YouTube videos relating to the Virginia Tech shooting and the concealed carry on campus movement. The blog posts over this and next month will further explore the discussions around this movement and school shootings.]

[1] These came in the form of comments on thirty-two YouTube videos filtered as the ‘most relevant’ to the terms ‘Virginia Tech shooting’ and ‘concealed carry on campus.’ Please refer to the blog posted on the 15th October 2014 regarding the usefulness of YouTube in research projects.

[2] This is discussed as a way to avert and negate crime in the following source: Elias, R. (1986) The Politics of Victimization: Victims, Victimology and Human Rights. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 72, 87.

[3] Ferraro, K. F. (1995) Fear of Crime: Interpreting Victimization Risk. New York: University of New York Press, 179.

[4] As quoted in the following press release: Gun Owners of America (GOA) (April 2007) ‘Virginia Tech Shooting — Gun Bans Are The Problem, Not The Solution.’ Available at: http://www.gunowners.org/pr0704.html.

Managing the Risks of School Shootings: Flaws to Avoid

Continuing the theme of the last two blogs of emergency management plans and training — something which is crucial to managing something as deadly as a school shooting — this post elucidates what to avoid when planning for and responding to acts of violence. Since something like ‘risk’ cannot be entirely eliminated, what organisations should strive to achieve instead is a level of ‘safety,’ i.e. what is deemed to be “an acceptable level of risk.”[1] In terms of school shootings, this means planning for which actions to take in a crisis should be located within the wider rubric of school violence; as well as accounting for potential spectacular events, which are rarer but more likely to be lethal in nature.

A common flaw of emergency management plans in educational institutions where school shootings have already taken place is not considering the possibility of such an event occurring in the first place: for instance, Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University had guidance in place for fires, bomb threats and so forth; yet not for an active shooter scenario. Whilst schools may feel that ‘it can’t happen here,’ the myriad school shootings which have occurred in the United States show that these tend to occur in suburban areas with relatively little crime. Moreover, the danger in not acknowledging the risk of a school shooting is that no plans would be put into place about how to eliminate or reduce that risk.[2]

Another common mistake is outdated or incomplete information in emergency management plans. An example of this is Virginia Tech University’s plan, which, at the time of the shooting, was two years old: this meant it had outdated information in it, such as the name of a previous police chief. Another instance of incomplete information is the case of Columbine High School, where, prior to the shooting, the building layout for the school had not been included in the plans — it has been said by delayed the response of police and other rescue personnel.[3] In situations like these, it certainly seems the point that Coombs[4] makes about the danger of having a plan in place is providing a false sense of security is correct: these have limited usefulness when actually applied to a crisis.

Probably the most well-known of emergency management mistakes is the delay in emergency communication at Virginia Tech University (refer back to the blog posted on the 20th August 2014 for more information). In addition to staff error, this transpired because of a number of pre-existing flaws: there was confusion about what ‘timely’ actually meant; there was no set template(s) for emergency communication messages; there were inconsistences in the emergency communication policy and emergency management plans about who had the authority to release an emergency alert. This exemplifies the importance of the linkages between different facets of emergency management: prevention, planning, communication, training and response.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of policy documents produced after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, as well as further reading. The next blog post will document some of the changes made to law to eradicate these flaws.]

[1] Borghesi, Antonio and Barbara Gaudenzi. (2013) Risk Management: How to Assess, Transfer and Communicate Critical Risks. Springer: London, New York. Page 19 cited.

Vestermark, S. D. (1996). ‘Critical decisions, critical elements in an effective school security program.’ In A. M. Hoffman (ed.) Schools, violence and society. Westport, CT: Praeger, 101-122. Page 108 cited.

[2] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 41 cited.

[3] For more details refer to Jefferson County Sherriff report. http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages

[4] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 106 cited.

Emergency Communication after Virginia Tech: Legitimising Laws and Policies

The Virginia Tech shooting provoked a number of ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ communication measures being implemented in colleges and universities, and also led to changes in federal law. In the last blog, I documented the emergency communication problems highlighted by the Virginia Tech shooting: the delay in emailing the emergency alert to staff and students; the vague nature of the first alert sent out, coupled with it failing to really inject any urgency into the message; the inconsistency between the institutional emergency management plan and emergency communication policies about the parties with the relevant authority to issue emergency alerts. In the next two blogs, I intend to take this further by looking at changes to federal and state laws, Virginia Tech University itself and how this created a market for the emergence of a mobile phone safety application.

Analysing the need to ‘take action’ after the Virginia Tech shooting brings to mind the argument of Power about secondary risk management, where institutional responses are guided by “cultural demands for control, accountability and responsibility attribution.” The lawsuit which was filed against Virginia Tech University following the delay in communication highlighted the need for accountability and responsibility. Notably, the delay in communication on April 16th 2007 was said to violate the ‘Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act’ — commonly known as the ‘Clery Act’ — (1991) applying to all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs. The purpose of the law was for transparency around crimes occurring on colleges and universities, by keeping a public crime log, publishing an annual crime report and disclosing security policies. More specially relating to the Virginia Tech incident, the ‘Clery Act’ (1991) requires that higher education institutions provide ‘timely warnings’ in emergency situations posing a threat to students and staff. As it transpired, the federal-level ‘Clery Act’ (1991) was amended in 2008 to include changes to emergency communication: notification is now required to be immediate, unless to do so would impede efforts to resolve the situation somehow; notification methods are to be publicised to staff and students, plus tested and annually reported; the authority of campus law enforcement to issue emergency messages is to be clearly defined in institutional policies. In terms of measurable effects, research conducted by Campus Safety Magazine found that, a year after Virginia Tech, 73% of survey respondents had bought or intended to purchase mass emergency notification systems. A survey by Rasmussen and Johnson found that 75% of respondents intended to incorporate mobile phone technology in their systems after the Virginia Tech shooting, compared to the 5% who had it in place prior to the incident.

At the state-level, the Virginia bill ‘First warning and emergency notification system’ (2008) mandated that emergency notification for public institutions of higher education be ‘comprehensive prompt, and reliable,’ with various communication mechanisms and the appointment of authorised, trained individuals to activate systems. In the case of Virginia Tech University institutional policies, the recommendations and subsequent changes made appear to be ‘corrective action,’ where the university sought to repair its image by reporting plans to improve its emergency communication system. In terms of improving mobile phone signals in buildings on campus, service providers sent over technicians to improve tower capacity. Sirens were also installed at two additional locations throughout the campus. Most notably, at the time of the shooting, VTU was in the process of updating the notification system, but the event — and perhaps the accompanying controversy and lawsuits about the delay in emergency communication — meant the process was expedited and so ‘VT Phone Alerts’ was fully installed and configured by July 2007. This system allows for users to either opt-in or out of subscribing to the system. Those opting in choose three contact methods ranked in order of preference: text messages, instant messages, emails (including non-university addresses), phone calls to office/residence, phone call to mobile phones, and phone calls to elsewhere (e.g. parents’ numbers). At the time of August 2007, almost eleven thousand students, faculty and staff had subscribed to the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system. Further changes have been implemented since then. In 2008, digital signs linking with the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system were added to classrooms; the year of 2009 saw the introduction of the ‘VT Desktops Alerts’ system sending a message to laptops/computers connected to the internet, both on and off campus; the system was expanded to six regions in Virginia in 2010. The most recent notification system consists of contacting mobile phones, telephones and instant messaging supplements, other systems of emails, desktop alerts sirens/loudspeakers, hotline, website, electronic message boards. Under these circumstances, policies have a ‘legitimising’ function outlining the course of action needed to fix the problem, where the implementation of these gives authority to the decision-making body.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents and the institutional policies of Virginia Tech University, as well as other studies and academic scholars. It was first published in my doctoral thesis and will likely appear in future publications.]

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.]