On Monday April 16, Seung-Hui Cho slowed the nation to a stand-still when he single-handedly orchestrated the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, leaving 33 dead and 26 wounded on the campus of Virginia Tech. Now, as that campus tries to heal under the tireless eye of the media, other colleges have tried to honor it with prayer sessions, memorial services and other forms of empathy.
But the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech has forced the College, as well as other campuses around the nation, to do more than merely empathize with their pain and loss. The incident has pushed a disturbing question to the forefront of many college administrators’ discussion tables:
“What if we’re next?”
Amidst the process of healing and grieving, administrators at both Rowan University and the College have stepped up their efforts to provide students with details about what they call “critical incident plans.” These contingency plans are designed as basic outlines of the procedures campus administrators and security officials are supposed to follow in the event of an on-campus tragedy.
“We have a critical incident plan that provides guidelines for what should be done in a broad array of situations,” Matt Golden, director of Communications and Media Relations, said in an e-mail interview. “There is a critical incident team, which is chaired by the provost and co-chaired by the vice president for facilities, construction, and Campus safety.”
Golden also provided The Signal with the section of the official policy that deals with the distribution of information in the event of an incident.
“When faced with a critical incident, the Office of Public Affairs will distribute pertinent information via any or all of the following: (the College’s) hotline (609.637.6000), mass e-mail, campus voicemail and an alert on the College’s Web site,” the policy reads.
According to Golden, the notification policy is posted in several online locations, but some sections are restricted to only the people affected by those components of the plan.
“We want people to be as informed as possible, but we also don’t want any would-be perpetrator to have a strategic advantage because he or she knows how we will respond to a crisis,” Golden said.
“Yes, we are prepared in the event of an incident,” Lt. James Lopez of Campus Police said. “I can’t discuss the details of our training, but we do hold in-house training sessions which I supervise.”
According to Lopez, Campus Police is also involved in a mutual aid relationship with Ewing Township Police in the event of an emergency. While they do not have a formal written agreement, Ewing Police will back up Campus Police in the event of an emergency and vice-versa.
“They’re only a phone call away,” Lopez said.
Rowan University also has a critical incident plan in place. According to Jose D. Cardona, director of Media and Public Relations, it is fairly similar to the College’s plan. Cardona and Golden discussed many of the same fears and policies in regard to their schools’ contingency plans.
“We practice those plans on a regular basis, both on campus and involving the local and Trenton State Police,” Cardona said. “We practice for everything from a student needing to be quarantined to a shooter on campus. It’s not just the Campus Police that practice, but also the counselors, residence hall staff and food service employees.”
Like Golden, Cardona realizes the importance of informing the students of the contingency plan. However, he also recognizes the potential threats of releasing that information to the public, including the chance of panicking the student body.
“It’s one of those things your students don’t want to be aware of,” Cardona said. He said Rowan tries to emphasize to students the modes of communication, such as e-mail and voicemail, that would be used in the case of an emergency.
According to Cardona, Rowan’s entire 280-page contingency plan is available to their students. The school also has an emergency preparedness Web site, but it “needs to be updated.”
“It’s not the kind of manual anyone would want to sift through. We send out what is called an “Owl Alert” when there is a heightened sense of emergency. That’s really what you want,” Cardona said.
Cardona also said that Rowan’s administration is considering releasing a streamlined version of their contingency plan.
Healing after tragedy
On April 18, College President R. Barbara Gitenstein and Jim Norfleet, Vice President of Student Life, spoke out to a grim-faced audience in the Spiritual Center, addressing the healing process in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, as well as the path that lies ahead.
Gitenstein discussed several media sources’ speculations that the Virginia Tech administration could have stopped the bloodshed if they had shut down their campus after the first shooting occurred early Monday morning.
“The implication that those of us who were not on sight in Blacksburg, V.A. .could have done a better job represents a truly offensive arrogance,” Gitenstein said.
Norfleet echoed poet and Virginia Tech English professor Nikki Giovanni’s sentiments from a memorial service held in Blacksburg last week. “We are Virginia Tech. We are not moving on. We will embrace our mourning,” Norfleet said.
In an interview after the event, Gitenstein discussed the College’s critical incident plan.
“We are putting together a publicly available form of the plan,” Gitenstein said. “(The shootings) caused us to speed up the process.”
Gitenstein acknowledged that while possessing a plan is important, it is not a cure-all because there is a multitude of tragedies that could strike any campus.
“All a contingency plan does is place the right people in the right places, hopefully at the right time,” Gitenstein said. “Unfortunately, you can never know the specifics.”
“The single most important point of a critical incident plan is a solid communication,” Gitenstein continued.
Gitenstein declined to comment on any of the specifics of the events in Blacksburg, noting that the path to healing was far more important than the need to speculate right now.
Cardona echoed Gitenstein’s sentiments in a telephone interview.
“We have students who lost people down there, so we’re still working on that end of things, rather than the nuts and bolts of the ugliness of reminding everyone about the security piece,” Cardona said.
On Friday April 20, co-ed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega stationed itself in the Brower Student Center from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. handing out maroon and orange ribbons in honor of those killed and injured at Virginia Tech. They also observed a moment of silence at 12:35 p.m. in accordance with a nationally recognized day of mourning for those slain in Cho’s massacre.
Role of Professors
The disturbing writings of Seung-Hui Cho in the months leading up to his violent breakdown have been a point of interest in almost every discussion about the Virginia Tech shooting since Monday. Many media sources have speculated that both the counseling services and creative writing departments could have done more to prevent his rampage.
“Dark or violent narratives are just that; narratives of darkness or violence. Someone who has gone as far over the edge as Cho will be unable to sustain a narrative,” Nathan Roberts, associate professor of creative writing at the College, said. “Think of the so-called ‘digital manifesto’ he sent NBC. This poor kid, between committing one act of unimaginable brutality and another, sits down to explain himself. He knows he is going to kill himself, so he knows this is his last chance, after all those creative writing classes, to communicate something important. And what is the result? Nobody knows what the fuck he’s talking about.”
Roberts also disagreed with the notion that the creative writing professors at Virginia Tech could have done anything more to prevent Cho’s actions on Monday.
“As for what I would do in this situation: if a student’s writings were that disturbing I would tell the department chair or the dean, the department chair or dean would decide whether to refer the kid to (psychological counseling services), and in the end it would be the student’s decision what to do about the problem,” Roberts said. “Professors can’t stop this sort of thing from happening, we can only try to help, and hope for the best.”
The office of psychological counseling services also plays an integral role in the College’s critical incident plan, in both a preventive and reactionary manner. The next stop for a student in Seung-Hui Cho’s position after he was reported by a professor such as Roberts would be a visit to the office of Larry Gage, associate director of Counseling Services.
“If anyone was having problems, if they were becoming disconnected from the community, we would be made aware through Residence Life, a professor, or a roommate,” Gage said.
Gage said most of what is said in a meeting between himself and a troubled student is protected under the privileged relationship between therapists and patients. However, there are exceptions to these rules which are outlined in the paperwork a student must fill out before scheduling an appointment.
“If there is a specific threat to life, be it another person’s or the student themselves, we would act immediately,” Gage said.
Gage also explained how he would handle a student sent to him by a professor who was in a state of mental disconnect similar to that of Cho.
“We would first look into the student’s history and try to find signs that person is still in touch with reality,” Gage said. “We would probably have the professor present during the session and have the student understand specifically what the concerns are, and try and grasp how the writing relates to them.”
“Look at Tarantino,” Gage continued. “He proves that it’s possible to write completely off-the-wall stuff and not have people concerned about your mental health.”
Gage proceeded to discuss the most difficult part of the counseling process – providing help when the patient does not want it.
“Involuntary hospitalization is the most difficult step,” Gage said. “We always try and establish a social support system first but if that doesn’t work, we contact the crisis unit at Capitol Health and the Campus Police, if necessary.”
Gage also spoke about the equal importance of how the critical incident plan works when a crisis is already in progress.
“(Virginia Tech) forces us to rethink everything,” Gage said.
Gage paused in his speech and looked over at a nearby student talking on a cellular phone.
“I think text messaging is something to look into,” he continued. “I mean really, that cell phone is your address these days.”
Gage acknowledged the point that some students may feel that surrendering their cell phone number to the administration is an invasion of privacy, but he also asked if there was an actual downside to the text messaging idea.
“I think the majority of students would go for it,” Gage said.
One student, Matt Johnston, sophomore criminal justice major, agreed wholeheartedly.
“They should just get everybody’s number and send out a mass text message,” Johnston said. “Really, what have you got to lose by giving the school your cell phone number?”