After the tragedies of April 16, a unified sentiment took hold in higher education: schools must do everything possible to ensure that a crisis of this scale never happens again. Virginia Tech, unfortunately, was forced to become the standard-bearer of campus security.

“Virginia Tech, because we were sort of in the middle of it all, we did a lot, we were going to do a lot, and a lot of people observed us as we did what we did,” said Mark Owczarski, assistant vice president for university relations, about the advancements Tech made in campus security. While the tragedy was unprecedented in its damage, security had always been a priority for the university.

You have to understand that Virginia Tech, prior to 2007, was doing everything it could to keep the campus (as) safe as possible, but you have to remember that 2007 changed all of higher education,” Owczarski said. “It changed the landscape, it changed the way that we view the world in much the same way that 9/11 changed forever airport security, what we do to be safe when we travel, these were historic moments and you can’t help but to have an effect from that.”

So what resources does Virginia Tech possess to effectively handle different crises? Owczarski says there are many. 

“What we’ve got is, we have a multi-channel, multi-medium notification system in which if, by definition, community members are required to take immediate action, then we use VT alerts,” he said. “We have multiple ways of informing you and the reason for that, that redundancy, is very, very intentional.”

Those tools include message notifications that can be sent via text and voice messages, desktop alerts, outdoor sirens, campus wide emails, the university home page, LED classroom boards and social media feeds like Facebook and Twitter. The idea, Owczarski said, is to make sure that no matter where a student is at the time, they will be able to see crucial information when it is released.

According to VTPD Chief Kevin Foust, while some components of the VT alert system are maintained by the campus safety technology contractor Rave Guardian, the majority of functions are controlled by Virginia Tech staff.

“Our philosophy was that if we relied off a contractor to do everything, what happens if that contractor service goes down,” he said, before recounting a story about a previous contracting service that failed for a period of time due to an earthquake. The system is operated by a staff around the clock and gets tested silently twice every day.

Police entering a closed-off Old Turner Street in front of McBryde at 1:28 p.m. on April 16, 2007.Kyle Swanson / Collegiate Times

Virginia Tech Police Chief Kevin Foust delivers a speech urging community members to not be afraid after leaflets with swastikas drawn on them were found strewn across the lawn of the Chabad house at Virginia Tech, March 20, 2017.ZACK WAJSGRAS / COLLEGIATE TIMES

In terms of how the Virginia Tech police respond, Foust prefers to keep his cards close to his chest. “I don’t go into specifics about (that type of thing), but my philosophy is if somebody wants to come here and do something nefarious, I’m not going to tip my hand as to what we might have in place to prevent that or how we might respond to it,” he said. “Because then we are more easily defeated, so I don’t go into specifics when it comes to what kind of resources we have.”

The Virginia Tech police department is certainly prepared from the onset, though, according to Foust. 

“What I have found interesting in the five short years that I have been here is there is still some thought out there about campus law enforcement being nothing but glorified security guards,” he said.  “I think it’s a generational thing. I’m 57 years old, so I’m an of an older generation, and when I was in college, we didn’t have a campus police department, we had a security office.

“We are fully sworn law enforcement officers here within the Commonwealth of Virginia, we are fully accredited both nationally and internationally, (and) accredited by CALEA (The Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies),” he continued. “We are a professional law enforcement organization, we train just like everybody else, we go to the same academy as our brothers and sisters in Blacksburg (and) Christiansburg.”

VTPD also has accreditation from the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Agencies. Fewer than 60 universities in the United States have received accreditation from both organizations, which are earned by fulfilling a large list of standards that are updated constantly. VTPD first achieved this accreditation in 1995 and has renewed it every three years since. For Foust, this recognition should comfort the community. 

“It’s another way to assure our community that we are very professional,” he said. “I feel better living in a community knowing that my police department has that accreditation. To me, that means they take their professionalism seriously, and they have to live up to those over 400 standards.”

Both Foust and Owczarski emphasized the strong working relationship between the university and the two local law enforcement agencies in the community: VTPD and the Blacksburg Police Department (BPD). 

BPD declined to comment for the purposes of this article.

Every officer in VTPD is also equipped with Crisis Intervention Training, which helps officers manage high-pressure situations to prevent escalation. 

“We like to say that we can teach anybody to make an arrest, that’s easy,” Foust said. “The hard part is working with somebody who doesn’t need to be arrested but needs some additional help.

“We know that there are going to be some who come to this community who are going to go through some type of crisis point in their life, and it’s a temporary thing by and large, but it’s something that causes them enough crisis that they need some help to get beyond it.”

Police walk towards Burruss Hall away from Norris Hall at 1:48 p.m. on April 16, 2007.Teodora Erbes / Collegiate Times

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, three internal reports, commissioned by former President Charles Steger, and an external report, commissioned by former Gov. Tim Kaine, identified the areas of improvement that the university could focus on to mitigate the consequences of future events. Owczarski said that the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of recommendations were adopted. But as new information surfaces about effective campus safety protocol, resources have changed dramatically since 2007.

For Foust, however, the behavior of the emergency response services that day should not be called into question.

“I never second guess (first responders), I never Monday morning quarterback, you will never get me to comment on what they could have done better, I don’t do that. I’ve seen too many law enforcement people over the years say, ‘Well they should have done this, they should have done that,’ in particular instances,” he said. “They weren’t there, they have no clue what those folks were faced with.”

One of the largest, and newest, areas of improvement that Virginia Tech has led the way in is Threat Assessment. After the April 16 shootings, the university administration, with the help of VTPD Chief Wendell Flinchum, was able to hire a national leader in Threat Assessment research, Gene Deisinger, to serve as the deputy chief of police and the director of Threat Management Services in Blacksburg. 

The team works in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies, the university, legal counsel and the Cook Counseling Center to identify potential threats to the campus. Along with working to keep campus safe, the team also regularly attends workshops to educate students about the resources available in crisis situations. 

For Owczarski, crisis prevention is a constantly evolving process. 

“Time changes the technological tools that you have and so you have to stay current, that’s why you don’t make changes in 2007 and then you’re set forever,” he said. “The criminal mind catches up to that stuff and works around the things that you do and so you always have to stay a step ahead of it.

“I think that campus safety has been, is and forever will be a top priority at Virginia Tech. It was before 2007, it was in 2007, (it) is today and will be in the future.”

Former Gov. Tim Kaine commissioned an external report that identified improvements to mitigate the consequences of future events.