Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

I'm not sure what to say about it. I think a post by Dave Schroeder in response to this story on Slashdot earlier said it well:

"This kind of draconian, presumptive, knee-jerk response is exactly what people seem to be calling for from Virginia Tech...after all, "what if" this could have been a real bombing? Maybe even the worst school bombing in US history? They needed to react vigorously and without thinking and full consideration of the situation, right? I mean, after all, the daylight savings change is just a minor oversight. They could have been saving lives, right?

I mean, we should be able to, within less than two hours, have an overly aggressive "lock down" a 700 building, 2600 acre, 30000+ person city-like area because of an isolated domestic incident in a dorm, but we shouldn't have an overly aggressive response against this kind of possible school violence?

To anyone who thinks Virginia Tech has ANY culpability here,

1. Remember what your response would be to ridiculous "zero tolerance" tactics on any topic, and

2. Read the below first.


When what is believed to be a single, isolated shooting in a dorm happens on a 2600 acre public, open campus with hundreds of buildings, you can't assume that you're about to have the worst shooting incident (of any type) in US history.

Yet, people are already blaming Virginia Tech.

Would we close or "lock down" a city of 40000 people if there was a shooting? Because that's exactly what a campus of this size and type is (including students and faculty/staff).

No, but people are already calling for siren/PA systems in EVERY of HUNDREDS of buildings, of varying ages and constructions, centralized door locking/control and camera systems for not just outer building doors, but ALL doors.

The University reacted in a reasonable way. Yes, a shooter was "on the loose". Someone who had shot a person in a dorm, and the University immediately sent out notifications that such an event occurred; to be cautious and aware, and to report any suspicious activity to campus police. The area was "locked down", but after over two hours elapsed, there was no reason to believe that a madman was about to go on a random killing spree across campus.

This is not an elementary school. This is not a high school. This is a massive, open research campus with tens of thousands of people spreading over 2600 acres, with private, residential, and other buildings intermixed.

The only person to be blamed here is the shooter. And yes, he's dead. But Virginia Tech is not at fault.


Colleges and universities do have the same kinds of procedures.

But a hospital is typically one building. Virginia Tech is hundreds of buildings - I believe close to 700 - of varying types, purposes, and ages. There is no central PA system or door locking system. Most of the buildings are wide open. They're intermixed with non-university lands and buildings, and span 2600 acres. Some of the buildings are over 50 and 100 years old. Do we retrofit literally tens of thousands of doors with centralized locking and cameras and install central warning/PA systems in all buildings, just because you might be the site of a madman's rampage?

There's security and prudence, and there's waste and ridiculousness.
(My personal favorite -Brad)

And the area in the vicinity of the shooting was locked down and blanketed with police. It was determined to be a domestic-type, targeted incident. And by the time VT had a handle on the situation, thousands of students were already on their way to campus. Nothing happened for over two hours. Then what do you do when you have no means of directly communicating with everyone? Should the university have had a knee jerk to a shooting in one dorm, and before they even knew nearly anything about the situation, have canceled classes within the first 15 minutes? Even if they decided that, how do you contact everyone? Email? Facebook? The web? There would have been no practical way to notify everyone, meaning literally thousands of students would have made it t campus anyway, and then what do you do with them once there?

Lockdown is simple in a controlled setting or a high school or elementary school. But at a 40000-person public land-grant university with hundreds of buildings? I'm sorry, but Virginia Tech simply has no culpability here. This is going to result in a lot of additional security measures that are either artificial and useless, or not representative of a free and open society, or both. I'm sure it will result in several multimillion dollar lawsuits by families against VT, too. After all, you can't be angry at a dead killer.

This tragedy has exactly one culprit: the killer. The alternative is locking down something that is essentially the equivalent of a city when something bad happens, because there is a chance that something else bad might happen. And even if we wanted to do that, it's barely possible or practical on this scale. Even assuming it is or should be represents a failure to understand the scope and logistics here. It's not just "oh, it's just a little bit of money" or "how about mass SMS messaging?" It's nowhere near that simple and there simply would have been no way to reach anything but a fraction of the students even if they had wanted to immediately after the first shooting. Even the "delay" in notifying students of the first shooting, which is now being bandied about, is meaningless, because it would have told them nothing different: there was a shooting today in the dorms. It is being investigated. Be cautious and aware, and remember to always report anything suspicious to the police.

When you have a shooter in a hospital or elementary school, you lock it down.

When you have a shooter in one of several hundred buildings on a sprawling city-like campus with 40000 adults, you don't lock anything down unless you want to live in a vastly different society than I.
(Another good one -Brad)


So, if there's a shooting in a city of, say, 35000 people, what would you do with, say 700 or so buildings across over 2000 acres in the city center?

How would you communicate with those people? (Email is really the only practical different option for the university.)

Would you go into a temporary state of quasi martial-law because a "killer is on the loose"?

I can see locking down a high school. I can't see anything different Virginia Tech could have done, especially since thousands of students would already have been on their way to campus or class by the time the university even figured out what the response to the first situation was.

And no, the appropriate response isn't to immediately close and evacuate what is essentially a good-sized city at the first sign there might be a shooting (which would have been the only thing they could have even tried at 7:15am, which would have been ridiculous).

Any claims that Virginia Tech could or should have done something to prevent this represents a massive misunderstanding of the scope and logistics of the situation - and I mean massive - and represents the worst in 20/20 hindsight armchair quarterbacking. Not to mention a worrying tilt toward apparently wanting the kind of police state infrastructure we'd need to even THINK of "locking down" a 2600 acre campus with hundreds and hundreds of buildings.

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