'Today': Va Tech Prez Defends Delay in Issuing Warning

Before this is over, I predict that Virginia Tech President Charles Steger will apologize for errors that he and his administration made in dealing with yesterday's massacre. But as of this morning, Steger was still seeking to defend the failure to alert students for two hours after the initial murders. As Matt Lauer politely pointed out, his explanation would seem to fail a simple test of logic.

"Today" host Lauer interviewed Steger during the show's first half-hour.

LAUER: As you continue to mourn here at Virginia Tech University, you're also facing some very difficult questions from students and from parents and from law enforcement people who are saying we had a shooting take place at 7:15 in the dormitory in this part of the campus, and yet an email didn't go out warning students even to be cautious until two hours later.

STEGER: Well, the incident, as reported by our security people, was believed to be confined to that dorm room; an incident between two individuals. When that happened we immediately closed down that dormitory, surrounded it with security . . .

LAUER: But you didn't find the shooter at that time. You didn't find the culprit, so you had to assume that he was at large or she was at large [PC points to Matt for that.]

STEGER: We had to first see whether or not there was a murder weapon and whether or not it was a murder suicide. And then we had to track down witnesses to see if anybody saw anything else. That's what took some time.

Here is the crux of the matter. Steger takes the position that a more benign explanation had to be excluded before taking action based on a more ominous scenario. Lauer exposed Steger's error in logic.

LAUER: I think what I've been hearing talking to students and others over the last 20 hours or so is why not assume the worst assume the worst-case scenario? Why not err on the side of caution and say we've got someone who's taken either one or two lives. If it's murder-suicide, end of story. But if it's someone who's taken two lives, the game has changed and that person now has nothing to lose and has to be considered extraordinarily dangerous.

STEGER: You have to appreciate that of our 26,000 students only 9,000 live on campus. So at that time of the morning you've got 15-16,000 people in transit. You've got another 7,000 employees and 2-3,000 visitors on the campus. And so these people are going to be all over the campus. We felt letting them get into the classroom and then closing down the classrooms, which is what we did . . .

Lauer threw Steger something of a life-line

LAUER: So you're worst-case scenario was thousands of students milling about outdoors when there was a possibile shooter roaming . . .

Steger was happy to grasp it.

STEGER: That's right and you could have also, since we now know the second person was a dormitory resident, we could have ended up locking him in the dormitory and this could have happened just at another location.

LAUER: Students I spoke to yesterday, President Steger, said 'I wish I would at least have had the option. If I had been given the information at 7:45, at 8 o'clock, I could have made my own educated decision as to where to be for the rest of the morning.' And perhaps some of those students wouldn't have gone to a class where you say they could be locked in and protected. As it turned out, unfortunately, they were trapped in those classrooms.

STEGER: Well, the ones in those immediate classrooms were, it's true. But remember, we have 26,000 students to look after.

LAUER: You met with you're executive committee at I think 8:25 yesterday morning? What was the major discussion then, and even at that point was there a discussion about getting that email out quicker than the hour it took from that meeting?

STEGER: Well, we started planning what the options were. We were at that point in time still getting information from witnesses and in fact people were still being questioned at 9:15. As soon as we had some sense we released that.

LAUER: What was your gut feeling, President Steger, when that second call came, and you knew that earlier in the morning you had a tragedy in a dormitory, and here comes a second call, and I believe it was labelled multiple victims?

Though Lauer didn't make it explict, his implication seemed clear: how did you feel when you realized your failure to alert people as soon as you heard of the first incident might have cost other people their lives?

Steger either didn't get the implication or chose to ignore it, speaking instead of his administration's actions to "manage the crisis at the moment."

Steger and his administration are academics, not law enforcement professionals, though presumably he was being advised by campus security officials. There is no doubt much, much more to come out. For the time being, Steger is defending his decisions rather than acknowledging the possibility that, in all good faith, he and his administration made mistakes with tragic consequences.

Contact Mark at mark@gunhill.net

Mark Finkelstein
Mark Finkelstein is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.