After decade, Virginia Tech massacre still shapes local police practice

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A memorial on the drillfield placed after the Virginia Tech massacre. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
A memorial on the Drillfield placed after the Virginia Tech massacre. (File photo)

On April 16, 2007, Andrew Goddard awoke with the belief his son, Colin, was attending a Monday morning French course at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.

By midday, the father discovered his son was not in class, but at a hospital. A 23-year-old gunman had opened fire at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people and injuring 18 more, including Colin Goddard.

A decade later, Colin Goddard still carries three bullets inside him, in his knee, thigh and pelvis, but Andrew Goddard considers his son one of the lucky ones.

While it was a “very expensive learning session with 32 dead,” the shooting that April morning taught colleges and police departments across the country a valuable lesson in how to handle active shooter situations, Andrew Goddard said.

With the 10-year anniversary of the campus shooting on Sunday, local police departments and William & Mary officials are discussing their protocol for active shooter situations – and how their policies changed after the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

“Campus safety and security measures have changed significantly over the last 10 years,” William & Mary Police Chief Deb Cheesebro said. “This change is due to a number of tragic events, including the horrific shooting of 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus that occurred in April 2007.”

Law enforcement departments in the Historic Triangle, including James City County, York County, Williamsburg and William & Mary, all hold frequent active shooter trainings, thoroughly investigate reported threats and have specific protocol for officers and civilians to follow, police officials said Friday.

“Since the Virginia Tech shooting, we’ve increased the number of active shooter trainings we hold, and have expanded them to include school personnel,” York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Dennis Ivey said.

Williamsburg Police train with William & Mary campus police for active shooter situations, as they are likely to both respond to dangerous situations on campus, Williamsburg Police spokesman Maj. Greg Riley said. William & Mary Police train semi-annually, if not more, William & Mary Police Chief Deb Cheesebro added.

At 7:15 a.m. on April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech senior Seung-Hui Cho opened fire in a dormitory, killing two students, according to a CNN timeline.

Almost two hours later, the school sent out an email alert stating a shooting took place at the campus dorm.

Remembering the 32 - a candlelight vigil outside Virginia Tech's Burruss Hall, two years after the tragic mass shooting. (file photo)
Remembering the 32 – a candlelight vigil outside Virginia Tech’s Burruss Hall, two years after the tragic mass shooting. (file photo)

Soon after, Cho entered an engineering building on campus, shooting and killing 30 more people and injuring 18, according to the timeline. Cho committed suicide just before police took him into custody.

A shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 sparked the first change in law enforcement’s approach to active shooter situations, James City County Police Department spokeswoman Stephanie Williams said.

Andrew Goddard said while the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School taught police to attack the active shooter, the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech stressed the importance of emergency communication systems and having a specific plan in place.

Now, William & Mary has a mass notification system that “immediately” alerts students and faculty about emergencies and threats through texts, emails, phone calls, a campus network and social media websites, Cheesebro said.

As for remembering and memorializing the Virginia Tech shootings, Andrew Goddard believes the best memorial is to prevent similar events from happening again. The father serves as the legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety and has been advocating for gun safety at the Virginia General Assembly since 2008.

“To say they gave their lives to teach something we can keep people safe with, that is the best memorial,” Andrew Goddard said. “It’s not all doom and gloom since that tragedy. In some ways, we are turning that tragedy into useful and practical lessons.”

Fearing can be reached at sarah.f@localvoicemedia.com.