Tuesday, April 17, 2007


The killing of 33 students and professors at Virginia Tech University yesterday is instructive. The tragedy unfolded partly because investigators made an assumption that the killer had left the campus. The mistake was reasonable but fatal. It will take years for the university and police authorities to live down the error.

The two-hour gap will be analyzed over and over as will the decision to let classes continue. In hindsight, the university will look foolhardy for failing to communicate more quickly. Almost certainly, distraught parents will sue. The university's president is dealing with a crisis that will define the school for decades. There is no communication at this point that can make what happened any better. The effort now should be to explain what happened in as great a detail as possible. Perhaps in the explanation, the university's lack of action will be more understandable. Sadly, it will take weeks for the full story to emerge and in that time, rumors and speculation will mount. Students, parents, teachers and the public may make up their minds before the facts are in.

The incident is a public relations nightmare of the worst kind.


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