On April 16th 2007, shortly after 7 a.m., Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed two students in a dorm on campus. More than two hours later an e-mail informed approximately 30,000 students about the dorm shooting. Yet by the time students were even notified, the damage was done and it was too late. In that two-hour period, Cho had already killed 30 students in Norris Hall, and then killed himself.
Had the e-mail been sent out earlier, Norris Hall would have been on lockdown. Had a text message been sent to students' cell phones, they would have been aware that a gunman was on campus. Had an automated voicemail message been sent to their cell phones, those 30 students very likely would be alive today. That's exactly what the parents of two slain students are trying to prove in a trial beginning Monday, accusing top school officials of botching efforts to warn students after the first shooting occurred.
To me, this is an open and shut case. The school has already received a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department after a state panel investigation found officials erred in not sending a warning alert out earlier. Although that evidence is not admissible in this trial, it's very likely a jury will come to the same conclusion: that the lag in issuing a campus warning was ultimately a fatal mistake.
The key to the defense here is that the Virginia Tech massacre was a unique situation and school officials had nothing to compare it to, but acted in a reasonable manner when confronted with the emergency.
In the five years since one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, it is common for universities to issue immediate alerts through e-mails, texts and social media. Even Virginia Tech learned from its own mistakes when a gunman killed a campus police officer in December, with warning sirens blaring at the same time that security alerts were blasted on Twitter, Facebook and the school's website.
While defense attorneys for the state can argue this situation was the first of its kind in an era of modern technology and no precedent rules had been set on how to handle the emergency, it's hard to deny that officials failed to enact even the most basic protective measures in time.
Why were reports of the first shooting not broadcast over school loudspeakers immediately after it occurred? Why did campus security fail to lockdown campus buildings, including Norris Hall, in time?
While the defense may argue this as a case of hindsight is 20/20, I hope the 12 jurors see this is a clear case of common sense ignored.