Fearing the Fallout from Verdict in Virginia Tech Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Today’s verdict in the Virginia Tech wrongful death trial in Christiansburg, Va., has special meaning as it came down as I had just visited with people and places central to the tragic events on April 16, 2007.

BLACKSBURG, Va–  Spending three days here in the very building where hordes of media gathered nearly five years ago in the wake of the worst shooting on a college campus in U.S. history could not have happened at a better time.

This afternoon, a Montgomery County  jury unanimously awarded $4 million to Karen and Harry Pryde, and $4 million to Celeste and Grafton Peterson for the deaths of their daughters in Norris Hall on April 16, 2007.

The Inn at Virginia Tech is just a beautiful building. It was an ideal place for scores of news media to gather April 16, 2007 for news conferences. What Virginia Tech officials did not anticipate is that it would be the place where families of those students who were killed would also be housed.

The decision came just three days after the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium concluded here at the Inn at Virginia Tech, the place where 11 news conferences were held across the 8 days following the shooting.

Despite all of this information provided for the media in this very building, based on the testimony in the wrongful death case the last two weeks, the jury decided Virginia Tech was negligent for failing to warn students about a possible gunman on campus.

Last week, those of us here for the Southeast Colloquium met Larry Hincker, one of the players who testified in the trial.  Hincker serves as the associate vice president for university relations.  I wrote about his address in an earlier post here on Friday.

Standing their Ground

Today Virginia Tech President Charles Steger stood firm that the Blacksburg school did the right thing.

“We stand by our long-held position that the administration and law enforcement at Virginia Tech did their absolute best with the information available after the dormitory shootings on the morning of April 16, 2007,” Steger said in a letter posted on the Virginia Tech Website today.

Larry Hincker addressed attendees at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium at a dinner gathering Friday evening at Lane Stadium.

On Sending Alerts

In his talk with us, Hincker recalled how his campus makes use of the e2 campus alert system that now allows Va. Tech officials in 17 minutes to send a message completely through the  emergency notification system.

Given today’s verdict, one has to wonder will we see Hincker using this notification more often?
“You really have to be careful about using those alerts too often,” Hincker told us on Friday night, a day after he testified in the wrongful death case.
“We tell our people ‘I’m not sending it unless I want you to DO SOMETHING'”

Fear of Fallout

The families of two of the 32 people killed in the gunfire says such an alert to do something should have come sooner.

My fear is with this verdict, universities are going to err on the side of caution and send alerts even if they don’t know for sure a possible security situation that could be life-threatening to students, faculty or staff exists.

The overuse of such alerts can eventually have the opposite effect.

I understand the families of those who were killed are hurting. No amount of money can bring their child back.

But, the impact the verdict on other college campuses could be profound.

Not only are universities testing and re-testing their emergency alert systems.  Now, those university officials may find themselves wondering what can they do to not be in a situation like the folks at Virginia Tech were nearly five years ago.

“This university community, and especially the families of those who perished or suffered, endured pain and sorrow that, to this day, is hard to describe,” Steger said.

Hincker titled his presentation on Friday “Crisis Communication: Pushing Aside the Tears to Get the Job Done”

What if getting the job now for other universities means sending alerts even if there’s no imminent danger?   Has the door been opened for false alarms so that Universities can always say they did everything possible to keep students safe?

This remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I’m glad that I was able to talk firsthand with those involved in the communication plan at this institution where the unimaginable tragedy happened and history was made.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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