As a nation, we have watched and grieved with Virginia Tech. We have been moved by the images of candlelight vigils, tears, flowers and balloons. We have worn the school colors and proudly declared, “We are all Hokies today!” And we have learned about the university’s motto, “ut prosim,” which is Latin for “that I may serve” — the essence of what the university community refers to as “Hokie spirit.”
Following that infamous Monday morning of April 16, when student gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded numerous others before committing suicide, Virginia Tech counselor educators Gerard Lawson and Nancy Bodenhorn, both American Counseling Association members, responded quickly, serving the university community wherever they saw a need. They served the students with comforting hugs. They served by being present with the victims’ families during the heart-wrenching notifications. They served their colleagues, offering them shoulders on which to cry.
Lawson and Bodenhorn were also key players in what has come to be known as the Mental Health Advisory Group, a collaborative panel that also includes representatives from the university’s Cook Counseling Center, the university psychology department, the New River Valley Community Services Board and the American Red Cross. The group met the day after the shooting to develop a strategy to provide mental health support to the entire Virginia Tech community. “Our (original) goal was really just how we get through the next 24 hours,” Lawson says, speaking of the immediate aftermath of the event. A memorial convocation in honor of the victims was already being planned, and the Mental Health Advisory Group anticipated it would be very difficult for the entire community. “We felt strongly that there needed to be a mental health presence at the convocation,” Lawson says.
It was decided that most of the counseling work done by community volunteers and American Red Cross volunteers would be supportive in nature, Lawson says. Individuals in need of further counseling would be referred to the Cook Counseling Center. Wearing badges and purple armbands, mental health professionals passed out fliers describing what people might experience in the days following the tragic event. As Lawson explains, the mental health professionals approached the situation from a standpoint of prevention and simply tried to communicate that counseling services were available to anyone who needed them.
The Virginia Tech administration canceled classes the rest of the week, and many of the students went home to be with their families. But in preparation for their return, the Mental Health Advisory Group made calls for additional mental health support. The New River Valley Community Services Board organized a quick refresher course on brief trauma counseling for the volunteers. When classes resumed on Monday, April 23, more than 200 mental health volunteers were walking the halls and campus grounds, consoling students and watching for anyone showing signs of extreme emotional distress. Lawson made certain that mental health teams were in each of the classes that had lost a student as well as in each of Cho’s former classes.
“I was very clear with all the mental health teams that I wanted them to use language similar to this: Anything you want or need in support of your recovery we will try to help you with,” Lawson says. “I didn’t want anybody to think, ‘I have to be sicker than that kid in order to go get counseling.’ I wanted them all to know that anything they wanted, they could ask for. The door was open even if they just needed to come and say they were still so angry about this or they were still scared.”
Lawson was shocked to hear counselors in two of Cho’s classes report that students hadn’t even known he was part of their class. But in other classrooms, students struggled with feelings of guilt because they hadn’t picked up on Cho’s strange behaviors. Many students were questioning themselves and wondering if they could have done something to prevent the tragedy.
Many people were still scared to return to campus on the Monday following the shootings; on Tuesday, the grief really began setting in. “That is something that we should have predicted but didn’t,” Lawson says. “At the end of Monday, we thought that the day (had gone) better than expected.” But the team hadn’t realized that many of the students were simply dealing with the anxiety of trying to get back to their normal routine. Once their initial anxiety wore off, much stronger feelings — fear, anger, grief — began to surface.
In addition to being in classrooms and dorms, counselors also made their presence known in the dining facility. Lawson received reports that many of the students in the dining facility were withdrawn and not making eye contact with the counselors. He decided that perhaps the cafeteria needed to be a place where students could go to get away from reminders of what had happened. He told the mental health team not to go back there the following day. However, soon thereafter, he received a call from the manager of the dining facility saying his employees were having a difficult time controlling their emotions after seeing so many upset students.
“The staff members who were serving lunch and taking the students’ money didn’t know what to say or what to do, so they were crying. It was just a very different experience on the second day of class,” Lawson says. He sent employee assistance program counselors to the dining hall with some of the volunteers to work with both the staff and the students. Dining hall employees were coached in comforting and appropriate things they could say in their encounters with the students.
In the weeks since the shooting, Lawson has begun getting back to a normal routine himself. “The day or two after the shooting — and I took this right off the ACA website — I made sure I went to the gym. As hard as it was to drive away (from the campus), it was important for me to do it. I’ve been talking to people that I know and trust, and I’ve been really selective about what I’m able or willing to take in with the news. There was nothing useful in the news after the first few days. They just wanted us to tell them how bad we are hurting.”
By throwing himself into the response efforts, Lawson says he was initially able to cope with the events. He knew, however, that eventually he needed to stop compartmentalizing and address his own self-care. “I went and saw one of the counselors, and that is probably going to continue for a while because something like this is life-changing, and I want it to be life-changing in a positive way, not a negative way.” He also hopes that in watching him, his students have witnessed a very practical example of the importance of counselor wellness as well as the need to be alert for warning signs of compassion fatigue.
A meaningful cheer
As part of the initial group of mental health responders, Bodenhorn quickly gathered informational materials on mental health and the services available to pass out to students. The director of the university’s Cook Counseling Center, Christopher Flynn, had been in his position less than a year, Bodenhorn says, but was very familiar with trauma response. Flynn was at Loyola University in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina crisis.
“He had all of this background, which was of great benefit to us,” Bodenhorn says. “He was very clear in the planning meetings that the way we were going to go forward with this was not with the assumption that everybody is going to fall apart and need critical care. How people are going to respond to this was going to be an ongoing process.” Grief, she adds, was treated as a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
The memorial convocation held on April 17 was extremely emotional for those attending. President George W. Bush, Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine and several distinguished guests from the university offered their condolences, prayers and encouragement. Perhaps the most inspiring message of hope came from renowned poet and Virginia Tech English professor Nikki Giovanni, who closed her address by saying, “We are the Hokies. We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.”
“Whoever managed the convocation was a genius from my perspective,” Bodenhorn says, taking a moment to collect herself. “I will always remember the statement, ‘You go where you get the most hugs.’ That was the directive to the students.” At the end of the convocation, students with tear-streaked faces belted out the Hokie cheer. At first, Bodenhorn says she was appalled, but then the spirit and emotion behind the cheer grew to feel right.
“Afterward, I went back into the coliseum. There were about five people who had not moved from their chairs, so those are the ones I went and checked in with. Every one of them just wanted a little time to get a grip on the overwhelmingness of it. The last student I talked to knew five of the victims. He expressed to me that each of those five students who died would have wanted the cheer. It was like the convocation was for the rest of us, but the cheer was for them. That made sense to me and really helped me.”
She added that many people also appreciated the memorial message boards that were put up around campus so the university community could write to the deceased. “There was a great outpouring,” Bodenhorn says, “and it was a great avenue for students, faculty and the community to just write messages. I remember one that was to Ryan Clark, one of the resident assistants. It said, ‘Ryan, thank you for keeping my son safe.’ And there were some (messages) directly to Cho, about recognizing the pain he must have felt in his life.”
An avid tennis player, Bodenhorn is trying to maintain her tennis schedule and taking time out to care for herself after providing care to others in the emotionally intense days after the school shootings. “Hitting things is very productive these days,” she says of her tennis schedule, “and I’ve seen a counselor. I’m reconnecting with people and friends in my past who I had lost touch with, and that’s been very helpful. It’s going to be a long process for all of us.”
Lending a hand
Sam Gladding, a former president of ACA, wrote to Lawson and Bodenhorn to offer his help soon after the magnitude of the event became apparent. Gladding, along with Donna Henderson and Laura Veach, his colleagues in the Wake Forest University Department of Counseling, arrived on the Virginia Tech campus the Monday morning that classes resumed to join a pool of mental health professionals and physicians volunteering to help the students, staff and faculty. Working in pairs, the mental health teams were respectful of how the professors wanted to address their returning students. The professors were told that the tragedy needed to be acknowledged and that students should be made aware of the mental health teams in class. Some professors wanted to get back to business, while others were speechless, saying they had no idea how to even start class again.
“There was a wide variance on how the professors wanted to use us,” Gladding says. “We were there talking generally to classes. We weren’t there to do long-term counseling but more like psychological first aid and let them know what services were available. We encountered and talked with students who knew those who had been killed or wounded, and we talked to students who were more on the periphery and did not know someone personally but still felt violated in the sense that their wonderful, tranquil institution had experienced this kind of violence. I think everyone was affected in some way.”
Gladding was very impressed with how well Virginia Tech planned its mental health response and recovery services. “The volunteers were utilized well,” he says. “Gerard and Nancy were right at the control center. They are heroes in my book. It’s probably some of the best implementation that I’ve ever seen, and I worked after 9/11 in New York. I just think Virginia Tech did it as well as anybody could and continues to do it as well as anybody can.” Gladding returned to the Virginia Tech campus to help support the mental health staff during the graduation ceremonies that took place in mid-May, roughly one month after the shootings took place.
Hindsight is 20/20
One issue that became very clear to university officials and emergency responders after the deadly school shootings was the lack of a centralized emergency response headquarters and plan at Virginia Tech. “The (American) Red Cross has a very clear protocol on how things are supposed to run in an emergency, but one of the problems we had as a university is that we are so decentralized,” Lawson says. “When an emergency happens, you need some centralization.” Issues arose when the American Red Cross arrived at the scene and began asking who was responsible for certain populations on campus. The university supplied multiple answers, depending on whether the population in questions involved students, staff or faculty.
“There needs to be a much clearer idea of who is going to do what in an emergency situation like this,” Lawson says. “There needs to be a mechanism that says when these things happen, this is how the process needs to work. But the one thing that worked well was the fact that there wasn’t any turf issues. Everybody showed up and said, ‘How can I be useful?’”
Almost immediately after the gunman was identified, the media and many other people began scrutinizing Cho’s past mental health history, searching for “red flags” that were missed in hopes of explaining how the deadly incident had occurred. Lawson doesn’t believe a simple answer exists, nor does he think a single agency or person is to blame.
“I don’t think all the people involved had all the right pieces at the right time,” he says. “The red flag question is one that keeps coming up, and after the fact, it’s easier to see. It’s hindsight.” At one time, Cho was detained temporarily at a mental health facility but was released after a judge ordered him to seek outpatient treatment. Newspapers such as the Washington Post have reported that Cho never received the court-ordered treatment, raising questions about the state’s mental health system.
“I’m not sure that anyone in the moment could have said these are the things that we could force this person to do,” Lawson says. “Most of my clinical experience has been working with people in the court system, and there are a lot of scary people who come to counseling just to sit in that chair because someone makes them go. Honestly, if we want to use hindsight, we need to look back 20 years and try to figure out along the way where the system failed to support this kid and his family. Were there opportunities along the way that we can learn from in the future? It’s not a popular thing to say these days, but I think in many ways the shooter was as much a victim as everyone else.”
Adds Gladding, “I don’t think you can make someone either seek counseling or benefit from counseling. Trying to force mental health and commitment are not an easy task, and people can find themselves released if they appear not too dangerous to others or themselves. There are people who are very good actors. I’m not sure about the blame part from all I’ve heard. People sincerely tried to get him help. It’s much easier to speculate when you are not there in the moment.”
Gov. Kaine has appointed an eight-member commission, headed by retired State Police Superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, to investigate the details surrounding Cho and how the events unfolded. The first public meeting convened May 10. Additional meetings are scheduled, and reports are to be completed by the fall.
The review panel will study the response of state, university and local agencies to the tragedy, including medical care for those who were injured, medical examination of those killed, counseling for university students and employees, and services for victims’ families. The university is cooperating with the review panel and is conducting its own reviews of safety, telecommunications and information-exchange protocols.
Today, employee assistance program counselors remain vigilant for the Virginia Tech staff and faculty who remain on campus, and the local community services board has agreed to provide additional student assistance. ACA member Charlotte Amenkhienan, a licensed professional counselor with the university’s Cook Counseling Center, says the facility will remain open over the summer. It will continue to serve students affected by the events, including those who just graduated and students who aren’t currently enrolled in classes but remain in the area. The counseling center will also be working over the summer to review its internal procedures, Amenkhienan says. Additionally, Lawson is working with ACA in hopes of providing pro bono counseling services to those Virginia Tech students who have left campus and the surrounding area.
Many described the recent graduation ceremonies at Virginia Tech as bittersweet. It was a time filled with the celebration of accomplishments and the hope of new beginnings, but also sorrow at the reminder of lives lost. During graduation on May 11, the university president presented the families of the deceased with class rings. The following day, the deceased students were awarded diplomas posthumously at individual college and departmental convocations. Lawson described the memorial portions of the ceremonies as generous and thoughtful, but realizes it had to be difficult for the parents of the deceased to watch as hundreds of other students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. There was no mention of the gunman at the graduation ceremonies.
Despite witnessing the immediate aftermath of a horrible event that will live in history, Lawson is already looking toward the future. “We aren’t going to squander the goodwill that people have extended to us. We have felt it, and it’s been palpable on campus, the support from all over,” Lawson says. “That’s going to help us as we move forward. At the end of the day, the students, alumni, faculty and staff at the university are going to take charge of how we want to be remembered. It’s not going to be how we were portrayed on the (TV news) networks during our darkest hours. When people look back, they are going to see what it really means to be a Hokie. We will not be defined by this tragedy.”
Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund
To remember and honor the victims of the tragic events of April 16, Virginia Tech University has established the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund to aid in the healing process. The fund will be used to cover expenses including but not limited to:
Checks should be made out to Virginia Tech Foundation Inc., with the gift designated for the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund on the memo line. Send checks to: Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, University Development (0336), Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061.
For more information, call 800.533.1144 or go to www.vt.edu/fund/.