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Va. Tech faulted in handling of alerts

Blacksburg police officers run from Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg on April 16, 2007. The hall is a classroom building where Seung-Hui Cho killed 30 people.

MATT GENTRY | Roanoke Times (2007)

Blacksburg police officers run from Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg on April 16, 2007. The hall is a classroom building where Seung-Hui Cho killed 30 people.

RICHMOND, Va. — During the deadliest campus shooting in American history, Virginia Tech officials locked down some administrative offices and warned their own families more than an hour and a half before the rest of the campus was alerted, according to revisions made in the state's official report on the incident.

The revelations come more than 21/2 years after the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, went on a rampage that killed 32 students and faculty members before taking his own life, and only 10 days before oral arguments were to begin in lawsuits challenging the university's handling of the matter.

The report prompted bitter reactions from some victims' relatives who have been demanding the resignation of president Charles Steger since the massacre in 2007.

"He's got to live with himself," said Dennis Bluhm, who lost his son. "If he's got any heart at all, and I'm not sure he does, he's got a long life to live with this on his brain."

The revisions do not change the original thrust of the report — that university officials could have saved lives by notifying students and faculty members earlier about the killings on campus. Cho, a mentally ill student, shot two students to death in a dorm, then three hours later chained the doors of a classroom building and killed 30 more people before committing suicide.

The new report provides a more detailed picture of the mistakes made by university officials in handling the emergency.

It says two administrators notified their families about the first shootings in the dorm around 8:05 a.m. But the campus community was not formally notified of the first two shootings until 9:26. The massacre in the classroom building began at 9:40.

One of the administrators who notified a family member was Steger's chief of staff, Kim O'Rourke, said Phil Schaenman, the president of TriData, the outside firm that put together the report. She often called her son, a Virginia Tech student, to make sure he went to class. She told him about the dorm shootings but still told him to go to class, which he did.

"I did tell him what had been happening, and I told him to go to class," O'Rourke told the Washington Post. "He was in class at the time of the shooting in Norris Hall," where Cho killed 30 people.

"It's been taken that their families were given advance warning," Schaenman said. "But in her case, she said it was safe to come to school."

The other administrator, then-assistant vice president of administration Lisa Wilkes, was dropping off her children at her mother's house when she got a phone call about the dorm shootings and telling her to come into work. She then told her mother about the shootings.

The two administrators' actions clearly "do not comprise a concerted effort by university staff to notify their own families of danger in advance of notifying the campus community," school spokesman Mark Owczarski said.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said if there was an effort by the school's administration to notify family members before anyone else, it would be "inexcusable."

Later, Kaine spokeswoman Linda Tran said his office had spoken with Virginia Tech and TriData officials about the report's findings and it "does not sounds like there was wrongdoing" by the two administrators.

In other new findings in the report:

• It took 17 minutes for the chief of the Virginia Tech Police Department to get through to the executive vice president's office after he learned of the dorm shooting.

• Virginia Tech's government affairs director ordered Steger's office locked at 8:52 a.m. Two classroom buildings were also locked down well before the notification went out. But Owczarski said the office was never locked.

• One student killed in the dorm, Emily Hilscher, survived several hours after being shot, but no one bothered to notify her family until she had died.

• An administrator who was a member of a policy group dealing with the shooting mailed a colleague in Richmond around 8:45 a.m. that a gunman was on the loose, but warned the colleague to make sure that information didn't get out because it was not yet "releasable."

• Virginia Tech had two different emergency-alert policies in effect at the time, and that led to the delay in issuing the university-wide alert.

The revised report — produced at the insistence of parents of the victims and totaling more than 200 pages — made no new recommendations.

While conceding that university officials had a responsibility to avoid causing panic, parents of victims expressed frustration at the report's findings.

"These were serious mistakes, and we still don't feel like everything that should be known has been revealed," said Lori Haas, the mother of Emily Haas, who was wounded in the shootings. "Tech officials had to be careful, but they should have acted faster."

Another parent, Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie was killed, said, "It angers me that it took this long to get some answers."

In pending lawsuits, the families of two slain students fault the campus police and university officials for delaying a campuswide warning that a gunman was on the loose.

All but two of the families of those killed and injured agreed in 2008 not to sue in exchange for an $11 million state settlement. The lawsuits, on behalf of the slain students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, seek damages of $10 million; oral arguments are scheduled for Dec. 14.

Kaine, a Democrat, had resisted calls from the families to reopen the investigation, but he agreed to have the report revised to include corrections requested by families of the victims.

TriData, a division of System Planning Corp., coordinated the original investigation and report for the state, and prepared the revisions, which were provided to family members Thursday night.

Kaine said that many of the recommendations in the original report had been enacted during the 2008 session of the General Assembly, including the clarification of information-sharing procedures, mandatory creation of emergency plans for colleges and restrictions on firearm access for those adjudicated mentally ill.

Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

Va. Tech faulted in handling of alerts 12/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 11:21pm]
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