BLACKSBURG, Va. ― Kristina Anderson cried a lot the first time she publicly told her story.
Now it’s easier.
Now it’s a form of therapy as she works to glean some kind of purpose from something as illogical as random acts of campus violence.
It’s been seven years since she was shot three times as she hugged a desk in a Virginia Tech classroom on a Monday morning that has become known around here simply as April 16.
It took two years before she would talk publicly about the day 32 people were killed on Tech’s campus. Today it almost feels like the Tech grad does it professionally.
She talks about the “what ifs” of not just that day, but also others that serve as reminders of the tragedies that could strike on any college campus.
What if there had been some kind of mobile app in 2007 that Virginia Tech students could have used to report suspicious behavior they saw in the days leading up to April 16?
What if students like Hannah Graham, a University of Virginia sophomore who has captured national attention since she went missing on Sept. 13, had an app that could track their movements as they walk home at night?
Anderson now works for Live-Safe, an Arlington-based startup company dedicated to making software that does just that.
She often travels ― sometimes for her startup, sometimes for her campus safety nonprofit. The focus of her career is to make sure people don’t forget past tragedies, but learn from them, she said.
She talks about using technology to open new lines of communication between police and students and how the public can help keep campuses safe.
“It’s devastating and obviously it reminds us of what we’re doing,” Anderson said of Charlottesville’s search for Graham. “We think of how can we get there quicker. How can we launch on that campus? How can we empower those students?
“How can we promote other people on a campus, if they see something like that, either someone being taken into a car or a girl being taken off by two guys she doesn’t know very well, how can certain features in the app be more user-intuitive for people to report that?”
The app is already used in 18 states and several schools around the commonwealth, including James Madison University, Hollins University, Virginia Wesleyan College, Northern Virginia Community College, Virginia Commonwealth University and Shenandoah University.
This school year, it also launched at Virginia Tech.
LiveSafe isn’t meant to replace emergency calls to 911, but is more focused on providing an easy and comfortable way for students to communicate with police so they report things they normally wouldn’t.
“There’s a lot of stuff between not doing anything and calling 911,” said LiveSafe founder Shy Pahlevani. “That’s really what the app’s service is. It’s really preventive. You see something suspicious, you can use it to report tips, take a picture and send it to campus police.”
When a tip is sent through the app, it pops up on a computer screen inside the local police department’s 911 dispatch center. Dispatchers can reply to messages and relay information to police on the scene.
The app also comes equipped with information on what to do in the case of emergencies like tornadoes and fires, shows the latest reported incidents on a map and allows police to push emergency notifications directly to users.
Another feature called SafeWalk lets students share their location with selected contacts as they walk home at night. Friends can watch them on a map in real time and send messages along the way. If something does happen, the app has a built-in panic button that alerts police.
“Technology can enhance us to keep in touch and know where our loved ones are now,” Pahlevani said. “So why not leverage that when you do feel uncomfortable when you’re going through a garage late at night or a parking lot or walking home?”
Tech Police Chief Kevin Foust and Mike Mulhare, the university’s Office of Emergency Management director, said the school pays about $10,000 a year for the app.
There were about 1,700 people using it last time they checked. Of those, police received just a couple dozen reported incidents. The university has more than 30,000 students alone.
“Slowly but surely, it’s being used,” Foust said. “We recognize the way in which young people today and other folks want to communicate is always changing. So the best thing we can do is change with them and give them as many different ways to communicate with us as possible. Because the more ways we can give them to communicate, the more comfortable they’re going to be using those ways.”
LiveSafe is starting to stir up more attention as it gains traction on campuses across the country. Earlier this year, the company announced it had raised $6.5 million from investors to fund future development.
Anderson hopes to see the app keep growing so it can reach more campuses and be used to mitigate more dangerous situations.
She knows nothing can ever change what happened on Virginia Tech’s campus in 2007, but she may be able to find some meaning in all the chaos if lessons of that day save “even one or two people down the line.”
“It (April 16) just changed every aspect of my life, from trust to confidence to relationships. I’m happy with (my career), but it’s definitely not what I intended to do with my work,” Anderson said. “This helped me put, kind of, a frame around the whole thing. Gave me more of a purpose afterward because, obviously the first thing you ask yourself is why did I survive, why me? There’s really no answer for any of that so it helped me find some purpose.”
“The more I do this, the more I think maybe. Maybe this is why. But who knows. I was so lucky to survive and so lucky to make it out of that room that this is just part of what I should be doing and what I want to be doing in memory of the people in my classroom that didn’t.”