by Cutter Kilgore
On April 16, 2007, just after sunrise, as students settled in for their morning classes, two people were shot and killed in a dormitory at Virginia Tech University. It took several disorganized hours for campus authorities to secure the rest of the college and to notify students of what was happening. In a building across campus from the dorm, hours after the initial shooting, students were lined up against a wall and murdered.
In the days and months that followed, many wondered whether the delayed reaction from campus officials might have cost people their lives.
“Probably all campuses across the country learned from the Virginia Tech incident,” said Brian Keeley, Whatcom Community College’s director of facilities. “We identified communication as one of the top elements we needed to improve.”
Whatcom received bomb threats in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, and due to heightened concerns, campus officials like Keeley met with members of the Bellingham police department. “The police shared their protocols for an ‘active shooter’ scenario,” he said.
Formerly, procedures involved locking school corridors from the outside, and “we realized the only way we could evacuate was to set off the fire alarm, which causes confusion,” said Keeley.
Locked exits, fire alarms and not much else; only a few years ago these methods were all Whatcom had. Now, there is a public address system that can connect anyone to specific classrooms throughout campus, and brightly-colored emergency protocol notification posted in all classrooms.
Is it enough? How many students even know about the correct procedures?
Keeley said Whatcom is now part of an emergency preparedness consortium with Bellingham Technical College and Western Washington University. A grant on behalf of those three schools is helping to fund an instructional video, custom-tailored to each school, which will feature some familiar faces and can be shown in class to educate students about safety related material.
“We’re hoping to roll that out in fall of 2012,” said Keeley. “Our goal is to improve communication with students. The video will be key to that.”
April marked the five-year anniversary of the massacre at Virginia Tech, and during that time, Whatcom has enhanced its cooperation with first responders, police and other campuses in Bellingham to ensure preparedness in the face of crisis.
This March, a jury sided with the parents of two of the Virginia Tech victims in a wrongful death lawsuit, agreeing that university officials were negligent in waiting to warn students of the threat.
“Our campus is much smaller, more nimble to react to something like that,” Keeley said.