VA Tech shootings: SMS alert systems, more "copycat" discussion

  • BoingBoing reader Bill Koslosky, MD says,

    What about protecting campuses using cell phone technology? Here's an article from The Roanoke Times online from last September that reports Virginia Tech was considering an SMS alert system for their campus considering that there was a prison escapee who was shot and killed just off campus on the first day of classes.

    There are companies that offer these services, and they make the point that while the vast majority of students carry cell phones, they are less likely to check school e-mail. Rave Wireless also offers GPS tracking by campus security for those students who feel threatened.

  • Here's a Bloomberg article about renewed attention surrounding school campus crisis security procedures, and the more immediate potential security dangers after Monday's incident — the "Copycat Effect":

    After Columbine, there were 450 copycat threats, plots or shootings,
    according to Loren Coleman, a suicide prevention and school violence
    consultant. Schools in seven states were locked down or evacuated yesterday,
    the Associated Press reported.

    "Homicide is just a suicide turned outward," Coleman, author of the 2004
    book, "The Copycat Effect," said in an interview. "If we focus on analysis
    around the act, rather than to how people feel and react to this, then we
    have problems."


    But there's another security story that's not mentioned in this article. The part of the story that unfolded before Cho bought the guns and ammunition. He exhibited antisocial, threatening behavior for quite some time before he packed up weapons and killed 32 people. Much of that threatening behavior was directed at women. One female teacher reports being afraid for her safety when tutoring him alone. Cho is reported to have obsessively, persistently stalked (online, via instant messaging, and in person) a number of female students who lived on campus. By accounts now surfacing in the news, police came to speak with victims in one case (maybe more? maybe not), but no charges were ever filed, no further action taken, and the behavior continued to escalate. If even a misdemeanor charge had been on record, would he have been able to obtain those weapons so easily? Did nothing happen because the law enforcement system involved — really, all of us — don't take violent crime and threatening behavior against women as seriously as we should? Maybe none of that would have made a difference, but it's a question worth asking.

  • BoingBoing reader modality says,

    Two of my friends from Blekinge Tekniska Högskola in Sweden were visiting Virginia Tech when the shootings occurred, and one of them had his camera with him and captured 14 minutes of video: Link.

  • BB reader Mike Freeman says,

    Ad Age has an article about media companies purchasing Google Adwords keywords for the Virginia Tech shooting. From Canada I get an ad for when searching "virginia tech shooting" but not for "virginia tech" or "shooting" on their own. US searchers may be getting more ads. Brings up an interesting question of whether this is ok (there would be no problem doing this for a 'positive' news story) or whether it's just plain icky.

    Previously on BB:

  • Why the shootings mean that we must support my politics
  • VA Tech shootings: Wikipedia, federal drug records database
  • VA Tech Shootings: Cho Seung-Hui, murderer and playwright?
  • VA Tech mass shooting: Who or what is Ismail Ax?
  • VA Tech: guns on campus, TV producers on Facebook
  • VA Tech: questions, copycat odds, and 'net nabs wrong man
  • VA Tech massacre: 33+ dead, largest shooting in US history

    – – – – – – – – – –

    Reader comments: Attorney Laura S. Petelle of Peoria, IL, says,

    Re: the lack of misdemeanor reports about the student — I would suspect that most of these allegations were made to campus police, and there is not a university in this country that accurately reports its crime statistics because they are now made public every year. There's rampant massaging of statistics and lots of pressure from campus police and administration to NOT report. Students are often railroaded into a "campus arbitration" system under the belief that by reporting to the campus police, the crime becomes reported, when in fact it falls into the administration's hands and doesn't join the crime statistics. Then they're put through a campus arbitration if the administration is seriously concerned they might proscecute, and these things can be dragged on long enough that the Statute of Limitations runs out for the victim to report and prosecute through traditional channels.

    I'm most familiar with a particular sort of crime — acquaintance rape — because I went to a Division I football school, and we had a handful of women run off campus while I was there for having the temerity to report a rape by a scholarship football players, which was then generally played off as "she just feels guilty about it the morning after, so she's crying rape." (In the "small world" file, a football player – I can't for the life of me remember his name – sexually assaulted a woman four doors down from me in the dorm, and her parents were wealthy and powerful enough that the school quietly made him transfer to a DIFFERENT Division I football school, wherefrom he popped up at a summer camp for pre-teens where I was working as a camp counselor and he was an "inspirational speaker." Charming.)

    If you speak to student editors at independent student newspapers, particularly at sports schools, you'll get an earful about the crimes they hear about (and sometimes report on) that are somehow miraculously kept off the crime reports. I'm seven years out now, so I'm not very connected with the current issues with crime reporting, but I'm sure student editors could give you a complete rundown.

    If these women who were being stalked complained to campus police and no charges were pursued, this is the heartbreakingly inevitable outcome of campuses pursuing a policy of lying about campus crime statistics to worried parents to protect the school's image and tuition dollars.

    Author and journalist Charles Platt says,

    After a mass shooting, many people feel a strange need to claim prescience. "We always knew there was something about him … the clothes he wore … the poems he wrote … the funny way he looked at me…."

    This is bogus, especially in the current case. The two plays that the student wrote were unremarkable; far less violent than many comics. If I had seen this text in one of the writing classes I used to teach, I would have thought nothing of it. The student did not have a large gun collection (two handguns only, apparently); was not a goth; did not target only women.

    He did apparently leave a long note explaining why he did it. This would be a lot more useful than pontifications from those claiming retroactive diagnostic abilities.

    "Anonymous Rochester Institute of Technology Student" says,

    Copycats of the VT Shooter are starting to spring up. Not even a full day after the horrific events at VT, I get this lovely email in my campus mailbox:

    On April 17, 2007 at approximately 11:25 AM, a staff member at the RIT Inn & Conference Center reportedly heard a suspicious sound coming from inside a student's room. The alert staff member contacted RIT Public Safety.

    RIT Public Safety and the Monroe County Sheriff's Office responded to the room, where a student admitted possessing two unloaded illegal firearms that he said he had just assembled. No live ammunition was found in the guns, however the Sheriff's Office found ammunition inside the student's parked vehicle. The student was suspended from the university and the Sheriff's Office investigation continues.

    Link to a local Rochester paper that has more info on the story.

    Adam Backstrom says,

    I'm an RIT Alum, so the recent student arrest and it's mention on BoingBoing is of particular interest to me. (I had caught the story a few hours earlier via Facebook.) While Hackenburg did violate the law and his timing is pretty bad considering what happened at VA Tech, the WHAM article does not paint the picture of a maladjusted teen preparing to shoot up his school.

    I think it's important to make the distinction between a gun hobbyist who perhaps lacks some common sense and a suicidal mass-murderer.

    Jacob Patton says,

    Why don't groups use Twitter for their SMSM emergency alert systems? It's working for earthquake notifications in the Bay Area and must be useful in other emergency situations, too. (See my blog post from yesterday for more info.)

    Alan Seideman of loopnote says,

    We've gotten a few emails over the last couple days asking us if loopnote can be used for emergencies like these. If there had been a way to alert students via their phones about the danger on campus, perhaps the losses could have been fewer. While we definitely didn't build the service specifically for emergency situations, I think it makes perfect sense. Over the last few weeks we've been thinking about ways that groups communicate with each other. Each group consists of people who want to get information out and people who want to consume the information. For emergency "groups" like this, where the group consists of students/staff as well as emergency coordinators like campus police, it's important that the student body and staff be added to the group in an easy way. This brings up the issue of opt-in vs. opt-out subscriptions. Campus police needs to have information for students such as their email addresses and their phone numbers and phone carriers. With that information, they'd be able to create a "loop" on our site and manually subscribe others to that group.

    One of the things we're working on is a way to make it easier for "loop" owners to manually subscribe people to their loops. That's relevant because for an Emergency alert service you'd really want all the students to be subscribed but not have to depend on them to manually subscribe themselves. We initially thought that all subscriptions would need to be initiated by the subscriber because that was the least intrusive way to do things. We didn't want people to start getting spammed by loop owners. So we created loops and said that if anyone wanted to subscribe, they had to come to the site, find the loop, and then register before signing up.

    Later we realized that this wasn't necessarily the easiest way to do things and that in most cases subscribers would be happy if someone else (friends, family, their school) signed them for some type of alert – as long as they had the option to unsubscribe. So we've come up with a middle ground which I think works really well. A loop owner can subscribe others to their loop via email, im, or sms. Each subscriber will get a message asking them to confirm their subscription. This opt-out model works best because it has a low barrier to entry for subscribers but still gives people the control to stop spam and other abuses.

    We'd like to let schools and other organizations interested in setting up emergency alerts know that they can get in touch with us personally and we'll help them set things up. The service is free by the way. They can email us at