One year later, Va. Tech tragedy still impacts UK

By Alice Haymond

A year ago today, Christy Giles glanced up at the TV in her office on Oldham Court. She could not believe the scenes that were flashing across CNN as the anchors and reporters described a mass shooting at Virginia Tech University. By the end of the day, the student shooter had killed 32 members of the university community and himself.

“Personally, I don’t know if you can be prepared for that, mentally,” said Giles, the director of the Office of Emergency Management at UK. “All the training in the world can’t prepare you for that level of a tragedy.”

As she watched the events unfold on April 16, 2007, all Giles could think about was what people at UK would do if it were happening on this campus, she said.

The Office of Emergency Management had been on campus since 2004, working with evacuation and disaster plans for buildings, coordinating lines of communication between administrators during crises and sending out campus safety alerts to UK Public Relations and the mass media.

Its presence was known and felt among administrators, Giles said, and those lines of communication had always been clear. But at the time of the Virginia Tech shooting, the office did not have many ways to communicate directly to students, employees, parents and other community members.

Since then, the office has created ties to the community by updating its Web site ( and posting other Internet notifications on UK’s homepage, and also installing the UK Alert system, which allows people to sign up for emergency notification by phone, e-mail, text messages and fax.

“We have a much broader vision of communication and of keeping people informed more up-to-date,” Giles said.

Dean of Students Victor Hazard said UK has learned three main lessons from the tragedy, all of which relate to improving communication: increased awareness, a sense of communication between departments and stronger collaboration across campus.

“We have a greater degree of networking now than we had before,” he said. “Plans are plans until something happens, and how we communicate during the interim will be key to how we act during a crisis.”

For administrators and students, the most shocking realization about this crisis was that it happened on a college campus.

“I always feel safe at college because there are so many people around,” said Jessica Fuson, a merchandising, apparel and textiles sophomore.

But after the shooting that day, she thought about how open the campus was and how, unlike high school, there were no barriers or metal detectors on university boundaries.

“It’s just the college environment, which is scary because that’s what makes it feel so safe at the same time,” Fuson said.

Director of Public Safety Anthany Beatty also noticed the threat the campus environment posed after the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

“For college administrators it certainly made us realize that campuses are very vulnerable by creating an open atmosphere that is conducive to learning,” he said.

Because of the vulnerability, it is necessary to prepare for an emergency situation, but just as important to learn how to prevent it, Beatty said.

“Now we are in more of a preventive mode than we were before Virginia Tech,” he said. “What caused the person to do what they did, and how do you intervene?”

One campus initiative that targets that question is a recently formed group of administrators called Students of Concern. The panel identifies students going through personal problems or stressful situations and helps them find resources on campus, such as the Center for Counseling and Testing, the Office of Student Financial Aid or an academic adviser.

Many of the preparative measures depend on cooperation from students, faculty and staff, Beatty said. By now, he said everyone on campus should have signed up for the UK Alert system because it is integral in getting information out to the campus community in the case of an emergency. The system launched in January and now has 13,000 subscribers.

Giles, who manages UK Alert, said she hopes more people will sign up during the summer and next school year. After the initial uses of the system revealed problems, such as when a tornado warning only reached about a third of the people who had signed up for alerts, the system has been improved, she said. To subscribe, visit

Beatty said everyone on campus must be involved in emergency tests, which include fire drills, building evacuations and emergency scenarios on campus. In the past, he said, many people have questioned why UK has those drills and whether it is an extreme precaution.

“The reality is, we have to (be prepared), and that’s why one has to take the exercises seriously,” he said.

Yesterday, when Giles reflected on the how her job has changed since the Virginia Tech shooting, she said she does the same work that she did before the incident. The difference lies in how people from outside her office view the importance of emergency management.

“It was more of a back-burner issue if you will,” she said. “Now it’s more apparent that things can happen.”­­