I will be discussing risk communication using the Virginia Tech (VT) shooting of April 16, 2007 as a scope. On that day Seung Hui Cho, a student at VT inspired fear and disrupted the sense of security felt on college campuses around the nation after opening fire on his fellow students and VT community members. The events that shaped this day have left their mark not only on Virginia Tech, but on most universities in the United States (US) and perhaps the world. Lessons learned include new techniques for mass information dissemination, establishing Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) on campuses, better communication between communities and counseling centers, and gun control laws.
When communicating about a crisis the content, the communicator, the tone and the means of communication all must be considered (Covell0, 2001). The public hangs on the organization’s every word during a crisis and emergency, therefore continuity, control, knowledge, and resources are all vital to calm the public.
Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine acted quickly in the wake of the massacre, establishing a panel to look into the events that culminated on April 16, the incident itself, and its consequences (Davies, 2008). This panel interviewed University officials, responders, and people close to Cho in order to obtain as much information as possible. The Panel held public meetings, which not only allowed the investigators to obtain information from direct sources, but also established a relationship between stakeholders and the Panelists allowing stakeholders’ expectations to be known.
The Panel noted three types of concerns in their review (Davies, 2008). The first is structural, pertaining to the federal gun laws. Ambiguity and “inconsistencies between federal and state gun laws” leave holes that allow mentally unstable individuals and those with criminal records to purchase guns this was how Cho was able to purchase two semiautomatic weapons (Davies, p. 11). Quickly following April 16, Governor Kaine made Virginia law clear by executive order. However, most other states have similarly ambiguous gun laws, and may risk a similar incident occurring (Davies, 2008).
The second concern noted by the Panel is the management of mental health services by the University and State government. More effective communication between the entities had the potential to prevent the incident from occurring. Cho received treatment from two different centers, the Cook Counseling Center located on Virginia Tech, which falls under the Family Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA), and the Carilion St. Alban’s Behavioral Health Center, which falls under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The discrepancy between FERPA and HIPAA laws created a situation that contributed to Virginia Tech and the community’s lack of awareness of just how deeply Cho was disturbed.
Cho himself contacted the Cook Counseling Center twice (Davies, 2008). A diagnosis or treatment procedure was never made, although a counselor spoke with, and collected information from, Cho via telephone (Davies). Mental health records on Cho show he spoke of extreme social anxiety and a lack of relationships, but noted no suicidal or “homicidal thoughts in counseling more than a year before the April 16, 2007” (Leinwand, 2009, p. 3A).
However, in December 2005 Cho was taken to Carilion under a Temporary Detention Order (TDO) after threatening suicide and being deemed a danger to himself or others (Davies, 2008). Carilion shared Cho’s records with Cook. Cook, however, did not reciprocate or share with the University, because FERPA is unclear and universities prefer to “err of the side of caution” to avoid liability, even when the public may be at risk (Davies, p. 11).
The lack of communication regarding Cho’s past put him and the entire Virginia Tech community at risk with him alone at a large university away from all systems of support (Davies, 2008). The University as a whole failed to communicate regarding Cho. Despite faculty members (English Department Professors, and residence hall advisors) and students who reported their suspicions about Cho to VT police and counseling centers, no action was taken to substantiate their allegations. Teachers observed an unresponsive, isolated student, whose writings were dark and actions alarming or off putting to other students.
Following his TDO, Cho was ordered to receive treatment at the Cook Counseling Center. However, he retained the ability to schedule, and cancel, appointments. Cho canceled his appointments and no one followed up with him (Davies). Had either of the counseling centers ever called Cho’s parents they might have learned, as the Panel did, that Cho had been diagnosed with “selective mutism; while in middle school he had been fascinated by the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and that [he] has fantasized about carrying out a similar mass killing” (Davies, 2008, p. 12).
Thirdly the Panel sites actions on the ground as a major concern. The morning of April 16, after Cho’s rampage began, the Policy Group, which at the time managed the University’s response, was slow to issue the alert not wanting to panic the campus (Davies). Almost two hours elapsed after the first shootings at West Ambler Johnston Hall before the message was sent out alerting the campus of a shooting, however, it did not state that two students had been killed or that the perpetrator was still at large (Davies).
No Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which would have provided a headquarters to convene crisis response crews and a central area to perform communication procedures (i.e. gathering and analyzing data), was established creating even greater difficulty in communication. A family-assistance center was established, but it lacked leadership, coordination, and trained operators (Davies, 2008).
State police greatly facilitated in the recovery efforts. They alerted the families to the situation and assisted those who sought “advice about what to do and where to go” (Davies, 2008, p. 13). The recovery process was handled by multiple agencies that, however, lacked interagency communication and coordination skills. Federal and state response were very slow and in fact took nearly two days (for the first agency) to arrive.
Communication was weak and disorganized. Some state agencies blamed the University as the cause of the information sharing delays because they did not want to share control of the situation. Communication between the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and families was poor leaving family members “frustrated and confused” (Davies, p. 13).
Interagency training is a vital component in effect emergency response and risk communication. Thanks to frequent exercises and a cooperative relationship between the VT and Blacksburg police a swift response was achieved. Despite an initial set-back from operating on different radio channel, communication between VT and Blacksburg police proved to be quite effective.
Ideally universities should have threat assessment teams and crisis management plans (CMP) that cover a broad range of crises including “storms, toxic spills or leaks, pandemics, and active shooters” (Davies, p. 14). Regardless, CMPs are useless unless trained with and updated regularly. Interagency training is particularly important for incidents that may occur on college campuses.
Advanced planning and outlining communication procedures with responders is vital. A multifaceted way of alerting the campus community and the surrounding area about threats must be accurate, clear, and immediate. Authorities should be able to act independently in the case of an emergency.
Crisis managers should be aware of stakeholder perceptions. Virginia Tech administration allowed fear of stakeholder perception to cloud their sense of responsibility and allowed precious time to elapse before they warned the University of the threat on campus. Having a communication, crisis, or community plan in place helps to mitigate undesirable incidents.
Crisis management plan s must factor in second-order effects. The importance of this step is evident given the second wave of killings at VT.. It is likely that if more proactive measures were taken by the counseling centers and police department much of this could have been prevented.
Crisis managers must be prepared to contact local television and radio stations, establish or update a website specifically for the crisis, staff a 24-hour hotline, write up and disseminate flyers in multiple languages to the public in the surrounding area, and coordinate with local emergency service providers (i.e. police, fire, medical personnel) (ASTHO, 2002). A strong positive relationship with the media is crucial because they often relay the most information to the public (ASTHO).
Many lessons have been learned from the VT massacre, and policy changes have been implemented. As a result of the confusion over FERPA laws, schools may now “use the health-or-safety exception as long as there is an ‘articulatable’ and significant threat against the student or others and that parents should be contacted (Anonymous, p. 14). A great guns-on-campus debate as spawned due in large part to the VT massacre. While VT has banned guns on campus, others schools feel that the events could have been avoided if other students would have been armed.
VT has also established a range of community preparedness programs including preparedness flyers, which can be seen throughout the campus, instructing students and faculty how to identify suspicious behavior, and how to respond and react to various forms of disaster. Virginia Tech now has multiple notification systems in place to communicate with the University.
Though the incidents that played out on April 16, 2007 on the Virginia Tech campus ended in tragedy, many lessons were learned from them and should create a more secure and aware campus environment for students across the nation. Our false-sense of security on college campuses has now been shaken, but colleges are more prepared to handle and mitigate incidents of all kinds due to the massacre. More effective communication systems are in place, gun laws are being reevaluated, and changes in the mental health community have already been made all attempting to eliminate ambiguity. Hopefully as a result of the lessons learned and new policies in place Universities and broader communities alike will be able to prevent future tragedies.
ASTHO (2002) “Communication in risk situations: Responding to the communication challenges posed by bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases” ASTHO pp. 1-35 Retrieved from www.urmia.org on December 8, 2009
Coombs, Timothy, W (2007) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding (2nd Ed.) Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc. pp. 4-6
Covello, Vincent, T (2001) “Audiences and messages: Thinking them through” Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education pg. 1 Retrieved from www.orau.gov on December 5, 2009
Davies, Gordon, K (2008) “Connecting the dots: Lessons from the Virginia shootings” Change 40(1) pp. 8-16 Retrieved from ProQuest on December 10, 2009
Leinwand, Donna (2009) “Families want Va. Tech case reinvestigated” USA Today pg. 3A Retrieved from ProQuest on December 12, 2009
Leinwand, Donna (2009) “Va. Tech gunman spoke of isolation,; counselor described him as ‘troubled’” USA Today pg. 3A Retrieved from ProQuest on December 11, 2009
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (2008) “Emergency preparedness…It’s every Hokies’ responsibility!” Emergency Management pg. 1 Retrieved from www.registrar.vt.edu/faculty_staff/documents/Preparedness_Document.pdf on December 23, 2009
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (2008) “Progress report on recommendations by initiative” Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University pp. 1-17 Retrieved from www.president.vt.edu/documents/2008-10-31-implemented-recommendations.pdf on December24, 2009
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (2009) “Emergency Evacuation” Office of Equity and Inclusion pg. 1 Retrieved from www.ada.vt.edu/accommodations/accom_evac/index.html on December 23, 2009
Virginia Polytechnic and State University (unknown) “Emergency Information Desk Reference” Emergency Preparedness Program pp. 1-27 Retrieved from www.emergency.vt.edu/EmergencyGuidelines.pdf on December 23, 2009