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Kristina Anderson Headshot

6 Years Since the Virginia Tech School Tragedy, What Have We Learned About Campus Safety?

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Earlier this month, a friend of mine quietly posted this quote from T.S. Elliot: "April is the cruelest month." Immediately, I knew what he was alluding to -- the first two weeks of April carry a tragic weight as they move us closer to the significance of April 16. Today is the six-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech school tragedy, an event that became the worst school shooting committed by a single person in U.S. history. My friend lost his girlfriend; I was shot three times by the gunman.

It's taken me time to confront the reality of what happened to our community that morning inside of Norris Hall. On a very basic and scary level, before our story became a national headline -- a "massacre" -- and before the heated discussions around violent video games and gun violence, it was a very real, vivid, and tragic series of loud, piercing, and fatal moments in time.

Our early Monday morning classes were forever cut short by an individual with two guns. Once he had chained all three exit doors from the inside of the building, he walked from classroom to classroom, shooting us with intent to kill. He executed his intentions very calmly, methodically and purposefully. It has taken me, personally, six years to truthfully think about this confrontation with death, and what it means not only for Virginia Tech and the families of those who perished, but for us as a society and culture.

Is it okay to mark something as horrible as Virginia Tech a "massacre" and move on so readily, until the next one? We have to confront this, openly and collectively, in order to prevent what has become an epidemic of mass shootings in America.

I have spent a good portion of the past six years learning about campus safety -- meeting with law enforcement, survivors of mass shootings and speaking at conferences. While Columbine High School first exposed to us to the possibility of school shootings, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook demonstrated how vulnerable our schools and children are. So where do we go from here -- to deliver the promise to protect our communities from future victimization?

Law enforcement authorities have learned they can't wait -- they can't afford to sacrifice precious time in responding to an emergency or a potential active shooter. The standard police response in the Columbine years entailed first securing a perimeter around a building, and then entering. The high death toll from that tragedy led police to re-work their tactics. Since then, officers have begun to enter an active shooting scene as quickly as possible -- sometimes with as little as four officers. After Virginia Tech, universities have focused on another approach that has the potential save many lives: mass notification systems that can alert an entire student body in real-time.

While these are important strategies, they are reactionary. We need a preventative approach toward campus safety, an approach that can stop an act of violence from occurring in the first place. The most interesting thing I've learned about school violence comes from the Safe School Initiative: Not only are the majority of school shootings planned well in advanced, but the shooter openly shares his plans in advance. Ironically, these findings were published well in advance of the Virginia Tech shooting.

I think this is extremely important to emphasize: Potential school shooters often openly share their plans with someone. In advance.

These messages often come in the form of signs that are observable. They include both behavioral and verbal cues of their growing resentment towards others, withdrawal from society, and an increasing interest in violence. I do believe it's within our basic human capacity to know when someone is troubled or hurting. By taking greater responsibility to not ignore these signs, however small they might be, we can help prevent either personal harm or a mass tragedy.

If you notice a friend changing their mood, take two minutes and ask them to lunch. It's not a great effort on your part, and they will appreciate and notice the interest in their well-being. Later, that favor will, perhaps, be returned to you. If someone appears to be deeply troubled, consult a teacher or adviser.

If the signs are very worrisome, you may even want to alert the police. If you share information with the police, this doesn't mean they will immediately show up at your friend's door. Without real criminal action, police will likely store the information for their reference. In case the individual has violent plans, the information is invaluable and could save lives. (In 2007, a planned school attack in Newington, Conn., was successfully averted. A student came forward with an alarming YouTube video of her classmates holding firearms, after they had been communicating threats for several months. Police responded and discovered extensive plans for the attack, including a list of 20 targeted classmates.)

While it's true that violence can sometimes inexplicably find us -- we don't have to be passive victims to crimes; there are ways in which we can feel more in control. By being alert to our environmental cues and the signs around us, we have the important opportunity to take action to address troubling behaviors, or alert potential dangers before they are carried out.

The world can be an unpredictable at times, but there is empowerment and security in remaining vigilant and sharing information on incidents and behaviors that seem out of place. It's up to all of us to contribute in the building of safer schools and communities.

For me and for many others, today's anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting will forever be marked by sadness. Let's speak up and collectively do our part to ensure it doesn't happen again.