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Archive for Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Campus closure may have prevented deaths

April 17, 2007

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A single question stood out Monday at Virginia Tech: Would more students be alive if the university in Blacksburg, Va., had not allowed them to go to class after a shooting had occurred in a campus dorm?

The first campus shooting was reported at 7:15 a.m. in a dormitory, where police found two people fatally shot. But the first e-mail message to students from the Virginia Tech administration did not go out until more than two hours later, at 9:26 a.m., stating that a shooting had occurred but with no mention of staying indoors or staying off-campus or canceling classes.

Sometime after 9:30, the second shooting began in Norris Hall, a building on the other end of the sprawling campus. Police said the gunman killed 30 people at Norris and wounded 15 before killing himself.

"I don't know why they let people stay in classrooms," said Sean Glennon, a junior from Centreville, Va., and the quarterback on the Hokie football team. "A lot of people are angry that campus wasn't evacuated a little earlier."

The university president and campus police chief said they decided not to cancel classes after the first shooting because the initial indication at the dorm, based on interviews with witnesses, was that the attack might have been domestic and that the shooter probably had fled the campus.

University President Charles Steger said officials also were unsure what the alternative would be to allowing classes to proceed. More than 14,000 of the university's 26,000 full-time students live off campus and, with some classes starting at 8 a.m., many of them were en route when officials were having to decide, he said. The university and police decided that students would be safer in their classrooms than milling around the campus or in their dorms, he said.

University officials said classroom buildings are open at all times except late at night. The university could have restricted access to buildings using an electronic key-card system built into many doorways, according to a law enforcement source, but authorities investigating the shootings think the shooter might have been a student with a key card that would have given him access to the buildings despite the lockdown.

The university was aware of the challenges involved in reaching students during a crisis, even during an age when it seems that everyone is wired. In August, on the first day of classes, an inmate escaped from jail, fatally shot a hospital guard and a sheriff's deputy and then hid on campus, setting off a manhunt that shut down campus. The university posted updates on its Web site that day and sent e-mails, but it took longer for the news to reach students who were commuting to school and were not online.

Monday, Steger said the university would review its emergency response policies again in light of the shootings but that only so much could be done to prepare for unforeseen disasters.

"It's very difficult. This is an open society and an open campus with 26,000 people, and we can't have armed guards in front of every classroom every day of the year," he said. "It was one of those things no one anticipated. ... Honestly, every situation we face is different."

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