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Virginia Tech security put to the test in gun scare

 

By Tonia Moxley, Mary Hardbarger and Amy Matzke-Fawcett

BLACKSBURG

A Virginia Tech gun scare raised international interest in minutes Thursday as the campus was alerted and secured, police went on a search and a sketch of a suspect was produced.

But as the day wore on and media inquiries came from stateside and abroad, no evidence was turned up of a safety threat -- a situation that started about 9 a.m. That's when three teenage girls reported that they'd seen a man possibly carrying a gun near Dietrick Dining Hall, university officials said. The girls were on campus as part of Higher Achievement, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that sponsors academic programs for at-risk middle school students.

On the campus that experienced the April 16, 2007, shooting tragedy, officials acted quickly Thursday morning. Thousands were going to class, working and attending summer camps -- even though the fall semester won't start until later this month.

"In this day and age, we don't think we had any other choice than to send an alert," Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said, also adding that "it's simply the world we live in today . . . communicate first, investigate later."

Hincker also said several times Thursday upon media questioning that "the most important thing we can try to do is contextualize this information."

Officers from five police agencies, including state troopers, responded to the campus upon the report Thursday morning but found no evidence of a gunman despite searching for hours on foot and in vehicles.

Police planned to maintain a large and active presence, including continued patrols on campus through Thursday evening, Tech Chief Wendell Flinchum said.

The university sent out alerts via outdoor loudspeakers, text message, blast email, desktop alert, phone messages, the vt.edu homepage, Twitter, Facebook and electronic classroom signs. Those on campus were warned to remain indoors, starting just after 9:30 a.m. The alert was lifted about 2:40 p.m.

"Every one of our alert systems worked without a glitch," Hincker said.

Police later issued the composite sketch of a person of interest -- a white male with close-cropped light-brown hair said to be 6 feet tall and wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt, gray shorts and brown sandals.

No surveillance video was available around the site where the man was first reported to be seen. No cameras are installed in the area between Dietrick and New Residence Hall East, Hincker said.

Late in the day, Tech President Charles Steger released a statement in which he said "we suggest that you remain vigilant for possible threats. Maintain awareness of your surroundings and circumstances."

State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was "working with law enforcement to investigate the situation that happened at Virginia Tech this morning," spokesman Brian Gottstein wrote in an email Thursday

Tech officials, with help from Cuccinelli's office, are appealing $55,000 in fines by the United States Department of Education, which found that the university violated the federal Clery Act in failing to immediately warn the campus of the early morning start of the 2007 shootings, in which two students were killed in West Ambler Johnston Hall. The gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, then opened fire about two hours later in Norris Hall, killing 30 more people before committing suicide. The parents of two women slain in Norris are suing the university for a total of $20 million.

Soon after the alert was issued Thursday, campus was quiet. Check-in booths at New Residence Hall East were deserted, with papers, pens and a soccer ball left behind. Police patrolled the area, and students peered out from study lounge windows.

Engineering student J.D. Robertson said he was in class when he saw the alert flash across an electronic message board.

"It was all the way across campus, so I wasn't too concerned," he said of the incident.

Robertson was a sophomore in high school on April 16, 2007, and said he remembered news reports of the tragedy.

"It does conjure up the image, but a lot has changed since then," Robertson said. "There are a lot of new security measures in place."

Chris Moon, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering and a member of the wrestling team, was in the weight room in Cassell Coliseum when he overheard people talking about the warning. It caused him little concern.

"I was really just hoping my class got canceled," he said. "It seemed like the police had it under control."

While many people stayed indoors or away from campus, some did not.

Sean Gart, an engineering mechanics student who lives in Salem, said after learning that young teens had made the initial report, he thought it was "most likely a misunderstanding" and came to campus to meet a friend.

Bob Prout, executive director of the All-Arts, Sciences & Technology Camp, was on the Drillfield with his group of campers when the chaos erupted. The campers, ages 11-15, were about to launch small rockets they had made when the sirens ushered them inside to safety.

"Everybody sort of just melded away into the scenery," Prout said.

But the director said he decided to stay behind on the Drillfield to keep a watchful eye on his rockets as he answered calls from concerned parents.

A law-abiding citizen may carry a firearm on the Tech campus under state law. Universities may ban firearms in campus buildings and at campus events, according to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The court noted in a January ruling that such bans must be narrowly tailored, and may not apply to the general campus grounds.

Tech's weapons policy, in effect for at least the past 20 years, bans "unauthorized" possession of a firearm in campus buildings, residence halls or events such as football games. Students living on campus may store legally owned firearms and some ammunition at the campus police department, according to the policy.

But in July, Cuccinelli opined that while universities may prohibit the open carry of handguns in buildings and at events, the carrying of concealed weapons by state permit holders may not be curtailed anywhere on campus.

That opinion has not been tested by the courts, and was condemned Thursday by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

April 16th survivor and Tech alumnus Colin Goddard works as a Brady Campaign lobbyist.

There was a reminder Thursday, though, that gun scares are not limited to college campuses.

Montgomery County sheriff's deputies and Christiansburg police searched Thursday morning for a man reported to be carrying a gun near the county health department -- 9 miles away from the Tech campus.

The matter was investigated, but no threat was found, town spokeswoman Becky Wilburn said.

Staff writer Lerone Graham contributed to this report.

Posted to: Education News Virginia

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Guns on campus?

kenny has said that state colleges cannot keep people from carry8ng guns on campus. So now what, every time someone brings a gun on campis, remember kenny says you can, and some sees it, reports it and the campus get locked down. Could become a regular occurrence, especially since VT got hammered for not locking down quick enough earlier. Or say someone see a gun, reports it and because guns are allowed time passes while the administration decides what to do. By then it might be to late. Just because the tea party says it should be dosnt make it right.

NRA=NotReallyAware

You're spot on right, VBBum. I don't want 28,000 drunk and pimply kids packing heat every time their girlfriend breaks up with them. It's not about the rights of the fringe, it's about common sense and public safety.

NRA=NORIGHTSABRIDGED

VBBum is apparently only semi-literate, and your response is specious. This latest button-pushing incident on the VT campus just serves to illustrate what bed-wetters denizens of the academic environment have become. Pavlov's 'victims' doncha know...

English lessons

In this age of texting and emailing, the english language continues to be disrespected and destroyed.

First of all your grammar

First of all your grammar and spelling are terrible, so it's difficult to figure out what you're trying to say. But what I *think* you're trying to say is that legislation allowing guns on campus will lead to more incidents like these, in which campus is shut down due to someone seeing an individual with a gun. The answer to that is yes, probably. The same thing happens in every city in the country where carry of weapons is allowed-- someone reports someone with a gun, the police respond, find that the person is carrying legally, and that's the end of the encounter. That's the job of the police, to respond to calls. If one single competent person had been carrying in those classrooms in 2007, there would have been far fewer victims.

TRAGIC

The VT shooting was tragic but what's happening at ODU now is also a train wreck waiting for a place to occur.

Another student shot off campus???

When does this end folks?

it won't

There are no guarantees, no promises. No law or no politician can guarantee your safety. Ultimately, we're left to our own defenses in a decreasingly less civil society. I suggest you embrace the 2nd amendment.

Amazing?

How could this have happened? I thought guns on campus was illegal?

guns on campus

...are NOT illegal! Virginia Tech has administrative policy that excludes students and faculty from possessing guns on campus, but administrative policy is exactly that. It is not law, and has no authority beyond their own staff and students. In addition, VT is an "open" campus, meaning the campus itself is not confined to a fenced compound. VT is a collection of buildings along public streets that are intermingled with private homes and businesses. There is no such thing as a campus wide "lock-down", despite their public image spin. So the reality is that any armed citizen not affiliated with the university can stroll casually down the public street and the "no-guns-on-campus" rhetoric is completely meaningless.

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