Virginia Tech Prepares for Students' Return

Classes resume Monday at Virginia Tech, but no one knows how many of the 26,000 students will be there. Attendance isn't mandatory, and the semester ends in less than two weeks.

Students who do return will learn about their academic options from the school's administrators, and the focus will mostly be on giving students and faculty a chance to talk about their experiences since the April 16th shooting in which 32 students and faculty were killed.

The foreign language department at Virginia Tech is a small one. Last Monday morning, two classes — one French and one German — were under way in Norris Hall when the shooting started. Both instructors were killed.

German Professor Mary Paddock spent much of the week shielding the grieving spouses from reporters. She and a Spanish professor also launched scholarship funds named after their murdered colleagues. That hasn't left a lot of time to think about what to do when students return to Blacksburg Monday.

"I can see that there might be some benefit to getting together again, instead of having this incident putting an end to our semester so abruptly, without any warning," Paddock says. "But I don't see how the academics can continue at this point."

Virginia Tech students have a range of options — from completing the courses to taking whatever grade they have now.

Steve Siegel says that's a good way to handle the grade issue. He helped administrators at Columbine High School in Colorado after the shootings eight years ago.

Siegel, who works for Denver's district attorney's office, is part of a growing network of specialists who has experience in dealing with the aftermath of tragedies. As students return, he says the first thing is to create a sense of safety on campus. That could be as simple as having more police officers walking around. The rest is less concrete.

"There is no perfect environment for responding to mass tragedy. We weren't perfect in the aftermath of Columbine. We weren't perfect in the aftermath of Sept. 11. We're not going to be perfect in the aftermath of god-knows-what-comes-next," he said.

But Siegel says they learned new ways to help people recover after each event. For example, it's important to address victims' needs early. He was at Columbine 10 minutes after the shootings were reported. Siegel says at Virginia Tech, there was more of a delayed response.

But he says Virginia Tech's collective pride in the school helps people stay connected to each other. Last week it came in the form of cheers, even at somber ceremonies.

Siegel says, even in an environment where that collective spirit is a source of strength, there also can be pressure to recover from the tragedy collectively. So, he says administrators should remind students and faculty that individuals recover in different ways.

"I remember in the aftermath of Oklahoma City, the lead chaplain for the FBI said, 'If you don't talk it out, you're going to act it out.'"

That can be anything from anger to substance abuse or even suicide.

Siegel isn't advising Virginia Tech administrators, but overall he gives them relatively high marks. On Friday, graduate student instructors learned how to help returning students.

Sherry Lynch is with the on-campus counseling center. She told them if students have trouble concentrating because they can't stop thinking about the shootings, it can be helpful to just start writing. Lynch advises the instructors to tell students that what they're feeling is normal.

Around Blacksburg, one of the dominate feelings is frustration with the media. Last week, signs invited those with cameras, microphones and notepads to leave.

The university says the grieving that will take place in classrooms around campus Monday will happen in private. Reporters are barred from all academic buildings.

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