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The Nation

Improved safety at Virginia Tech urged

Post-massacre panels advise changes in communications, security and dealing with at-risk students.

August 23, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Three internal university panels that examined the April 16 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech released reports Wednesday recommending stronger campus security, improved communications and better identification of at-risk students.

The reports reviewed the university's systems in place on the day senior Seung-hui Cho shot two students dead in a dormitory and then, about two hours later, chained the doors shut in a classroom building, opened fire and killed 30 people before fatally shooting himself.

In assuring student safety, the reports recommended installing locks on the inside of classroom doors and creating electronic key-card access to some buildings that would allow campus security to lock those buildings remotely.

They also called for further improvements in the way students, faculty and staff are notified about emergency situations on campus. The school -- which had been faulted for failing to send out a campuswide e-mail about the first shootings until after Cho was in the classroom building -- has set up a cellphone alert program, VT Alerts, that now has about 12,500 subscribers.

On communications issues, the internal review found that, as in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "emergency responder radio communication continues to suffer nationally and locally from 'interoperability' issues because they use a variety of radio systems and frequencies." In tackling the problem, officials recommended a new "fully integrated digital campus architecture" for all telecommunications functions.

On the mental-health front, the reports suggest creating a threat assessment team to examine "the most complex cases of distressed students" and "empowering it to act quickly."

Like the incident's federal report ordered by President Bush and completed in June, the internal university review found confusion among faculty members about the limits of privacy laws and the amount of information they could share with one another about a troubled student.

"Faculty and administrators expressed concerns about . . . a feeling that there was inconsistent follow-up," said the review, adding that others "did not seem aware of the . . . resources available to them for responding to distressed students." The review also recommended expanding the university's counseling center.

"We at Virginia Tech have been forever changed by the crimes of one severely disturbed young man," Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said Wednesday. "We will take whatever steps are needed to maintain the safety, confidence and peace of mind of our students, faculty and the entire Hokie community."

A lockdown "is simply not feasible on a campus the size of a small city," Steger said, though he endorsed the suggestion to secure or "harden" individual buildings.

With students returning to campus this week for the first semester since the tragedy, Steger said the school would evaluate the recommendations to prioritize and fund the improvements.

Another report on the school's response to the massacre is expected next week from a committee named by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and led by former State Police Supt. W. Gerald Massengill.

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johanna.neuman@latimes.com

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