Virginia Tech Security Alert System Questioned

Virginia Tech graduate Nathan Hernandez comforts Randa Samaha

Virginia Tech graduate Nathan Hernandez comforts Randa Samaha, sister of one of the victims of Monday's shooting spree at the campus in Blacksburg, Va., April 17, 2007. Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

School officials at Virginia Tech have been criticized for waiting two hours before alerting students and faculty to the initial shooting that took place on the campus Monday.

Some students say they would have thought twice about going to classes if they had been warned after the initial shooting, and that lives could have been saved.

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger has stressed repeatedly the difficulties involved in the situation.

Steger has said that with 26,000 students, many of them living away from the 2,600-acre campus, officials would have had a difficult time reaching everyone or calling a "lockdown." After the first shooting at 7:15 a.m., thousands of staff and students already were streaming onto the grounds for 8 a.m. classes. "Where do you lock them down?" Steger asked at a news conference.

Steger also said officials believed the first shooting was domestic in nature, and that they had no reason to suspect another event would occur. Tuesday during a press conference, Virginia's Secretary of Public Safety John Marshall defended the school's decisions. "President Steger and his staff made the right decisions based on the information they had," Marshall said.

But Katherine Andriole, of the not-for-profit group Security on Campus, Inc., along with a growing group of others, thinks students and staff should have been given more information earlier. Andriole says a text messaging alert system that some colleges have already adopted would have been a good way to reach a large number of students and faculty.

"It's practically instantaneous," Andriole said. She said the same system can send simultaneous e-mails to inboxes and instant messages.

Virginia Tech officials said they had discussions about the possibility of implementing such a system just last week during an assessment of another incident last August. In August, an escaped inmate had allegedly shot someone and fled to the campus area, prompting the cancellation of the first day of classes.

The killings at Virginia Tech have highlighted the issue of safety on campus colleges. The campuses of public colleges are, as a rule, open to the public. But increasing security measures at dorms has become more common in recent decades.

Analysts, though, have said it is impossible to completely prevent such tragedies.

"If somebody wants to commit an act of crime or violence, our campuses are very open all across this country," Dr. Ronald Stephens, head of the National School Safety Center, told CBS. He noted that after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., some high schools added fences for security, but that this measure not feasible for much larger institutions.

Andriole's Security on Campus was formed in 1987 by the father of a girl raped and murdered in her dorm room at Lehigh University. The man walked through a series of doors that had been propped open. Security experts say many universities now have staff checking those entering during certain hours, or use a machine to swipe a campus ID. But these measures would not prevent a legitimate student like Cho from entering.

More and more colleges are also choosing to inquire about the criminal backgrounds of incoming students, Andriole said. There is no such requirement by law at this point but some campuses have decided the cost is too high not to check, she said.

Such a check, however, may not have caused a red flag for Virginia Tech gunman Seung-hui Cho.

The criticisms leveled at the school's administration and police will be part of an "after-action" review requested by Virginia Tech officials. They've asked Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to appoint a team of experts to review every aspect of the school's response.

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