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The Long Shadow of the Virginia Tech Verdict

There are some scars that never go away. For all of the noted scholars, graduates, and spectacular sports seasons, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, commonly referred to as Virginia Tech, will always be the home of one of the worst acts of violence in American history. A crazed and disillusioned gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 students and injured more than two dozen others in a rampage on April 16, 2007, before ultimately taking his own life.

That day stands out to me for so many reasons, most notably because our neighbor’s son was just completing his freshman year there. Fortunately he was unharmed by the incident, but I remember the long day we all had as neighbors worrying that a police car would come to their home with dreadful news.

The investigation after the incident revealed a number of things: A troubled student that faculty members and other students had raised serious concerns about slipped through administrative cracks; a person with a history of mental illness was allowed to purchase firearms; and a campus found itself woefully unprepared to deal with an event of this magnitude and communicate with the people it was charged with sheltering.

As a result of these lessons and others, universities, colleges, and school districts across America initiated a complete overhaul of their emergency management procedures. Instantaneous communications through texts, email, social media, and broadcast systems are now used to alert educators and students of imminent danger and to take necessary precautions. It is also not unusual for schools to undertake mandatory drills a couple of times of year to make sure everyone knows what to do should something – anything resembling an emergency – occur.

Preparedness actions and measures such as these could be called a sort of “silver lining” to the horrifically dark clouds of the Virginia Tech tragedy. People in responsible positions are being more proactive in doing whatever they can to prepare and look after those in their care. That is an overwhelmingly positive outcome, but there is another lining to these clouds that played out in a Christiansburg, Va., courtroom. In a suit brought by two families of the 32 students killed in April 16, 2007, murder spree, Virginia Tech and its leadership were found liable for their actions, or rather inaction, in dealing with the shooting spree as it unfolded.

According to the Associated Press/The Washington Post, “Jurors sided with the parents of two students slain in the massacre – Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson – that officials should have known the campus was at risk without a gunman in custody. The parents said the botched response led to the deaths of their daughters.”

Virginia Tech officials, as well as state officials, emphatically argued in and out of court that they had done everything they could to warn of the threat and had no way of knowing the extraordinary risks were as great as they were at the time. Indications are that Virginia Tech and the state of Virginia will strongly appeal the jury’s verdict.

Regardless of what they do and whether or not the verdict is successfully appealed, a very strong message has been sent to the public and private sectors in terms of preparedness and emergency communications. A failure to prepare for events such as these, and to communicate with the people in immediate harm’s way will not be tolerated.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...