Virginia Tech Tragedy survivor discusses personal safety in the age of mass shootings


Blake Newhouse

Kristina Anderson, founder of the Koshka Foundation for Safe Schools, and MUPD Chief Jim Terry discuss the ways in which Marshall University could improve campus safety at the 2019 Yeager Symposium Oct. 22.

Kristina Anderson was sitting in her French classroom when a lone gunman charged into her classroom, killing 11 of her classmates and her professor.

On April 16, 2007, 32 students and faculty members were murdered on Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg, Virginia in what is now known as the “Virginia Tech Tragedy.”

Anderson, the founder of the Koshka Foundation for Safe Schools, suffered three gunshot wounds but survived the attack and now dedicates her life to speaking with individuals across the country about her personal experience as a survivor of a mass shooting.

At the time, the Virginia Tech Tragedy was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, until it lost the gruesome title to the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 (49 deaths), which was surpassed by the shooting at the Country Music Festival in Las Vegas the following year (59 deaths).

Mass shootings have an impact on the communities that will last long after the media coverage ends, Anderson said.

“There is a lot that communities go through, depending on the event and how big of a news story it was. Our community was overtaken with press and media, and we actually even had one reporter essentially try to break into the dormitories to gain sound bites and things like that for his story,” Anderson said. “Then, the camera leaves, and the thought is ‘Has everybody forgotten?’ It can be quite hard for the survivors. People are very distant creatures, and we respond in different ways, and something like mass media attention being there one day and not the other can create some tension within the people affected.”

Active shooter incidents have gradually risen over the last years, according to Pew Research Center.

The increase in the United States has left many in the country questioning why these horrific events continue to become more frequent, including Marshall University students.

“Regardless of your views on gun control, there is no doubt that mass shootings have been a part of our collective consciousness in recent years,” said Paige Looney, a senior history and political science major at Marshall. “Many of us grew up in an era of mass violence, practicing active shooter drills and lockdowns when we should have been having class. All of us keep asking ourselves, ‘How can this keep happening?’”

One noticeable difference between the United States and other countries that are not experiencing the same rise in mass shootings is the number of guns within the country.

For every 100 residents in America, there are an average of 120 guns, according to the 2018 Small Arms Survey. This number is staggering compared to the next country on the list, Yemen, which only averages 52 guns per 100 residents, according to the same 2018 Small Arms Survey.

The Koshka Foundation has intentionally not taken an official position on the issue of guns on campus, however, Anderson said she recognizes that this conversation is important to her cause.

“I will state that personally, I absolutely believe in the right to bear arms. But, I don’t believe they belong in a place of learning,” Anderson said. “The only people I want armed on campus are sworn safety officers and other law enforcement people.”

Marshall’s Police Chief Jim Terry also commented on the issue of carrying firearms on campus.

“I grew up with guns,” Terry said. “My dad wasn’t a big hunter, but he gave me enough freedom to do that (hunting). But, school is just not the environment for them.”

Anderson said that the issue of gun legislation often is brought up when she speaks to various crowds about her personal experience.

“It’s often an argument that gets used against us. They will say that if my teacher had a weapon or someone else did (they could have stopped the mass shooter). But, these things happen very quickly,” Anderson said. “You have someone in your face that is not only committed to, but has proven they are willing to commit murder. Very few of us have ever faced someone of that caliber and intensity.”

Both Anderson and Terry stressed that it will take a certain level of personal responsibility in the community to prevent these events from happening.

“Your iPhones scare me to death,” Terry said. “We try to stress being situationally aware, but we could walk out right now on Fourth Avenue and 80% of the students would be looking down at their phones and not know anything that’s going on. That’s what scares us.”

After much discussion of the ways to keep our school’s safe, as well as personal safety, Anderson reminded those in attendance just how rare it is for a school shooting to occur.

“One thing to keep in mind, what you’re hearing about is a very small percentage of things that get a lot of media attention,” Anderson said. “For good and right reasons. But, schools specifically are very safe places and these events, while they are highly talked about, are very rare to occur.”

With that being said, Anderson’s foundation focuses on the recovery for those who have been through the traumatic experience of a mass shooting.

“One thing I’ve learned is that recovery is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Anderson said. “I think for a lot of us survivors, it really helps to talk with one another, but we want to make sure this doesn’t happen to somebody else, and we want to help spread that message.”

Refusing to show or say the name of the shooter during the discussion, Anderson said that giving attention to those who commit mass shootings would be unnecessary. 

“In reality, there’s no need to do that,” Anderson said. “I think there are storytelling ways to get your point across without showcasing the perpetrator.”

Marshall President Jerry Gilbert attended the event and said he will look to implement Anderson’s ideas about school safety here at Marshall.

“The knowledge that Anderson brings to the table is unmatched when dealing with school safety,” Gilbert said. “Kristina’s message resonates with anyone who hears it. Her ideas on how to deal with active threats are things that Marshall University needs to pay attention to.”

Blake Newhouse can be contacted at [email protected].