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Mourners gather Sunday at a makeshift memorial on the Virginia Tech campus.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Victims of the Virginia Tech shootings a week ago Monday were remembered this morning at memorial sites as classes resumed at the university.
Before heading to a central gathering point on campus early this morning where impromptu memorials have sprung up during the past week, nearly 100 people gathered in front of a residence hall where two of the victims were murdered.
Coinciding with the time of the first shooting, a Buddhist singing bell was rung three times to begin a moment of silence and then three more times to end it. Outside the dorm, West Ambler Johnston Hall, a few people cried as a small marching band from Alabama played "America the Beautiful." A violinist played "Amazing Grace."
Outside Norris Hall at 9:45 a.m. ET, exactly a week after 30 of the victims were murdered in the building by Seung-hui Cho before he took is own life, an 850-pound brass bell was rung 32 times. Simultaneously, 32 white balloons were released, one for each victim. Then a thousand balloons in the school colors, maroon and orange, floated up from the field.
As the ceremony ended someone on the edge of the crowd yelled, "Let's go …" The crowd, responding to the well known football cheer, shouted "Hokies!"
Classes resumed after the memorials. Students can choose whether they want to finish out the semester, which ends in two weeks, or take the grade they have earned thus far without attending the last two weeks of classes.
Virginia Tech plans to go ahead with graduation ceremonies May 11.
Administrators have encouraged students to return to school, at least to be part of the discussion about what happened. Trauma experts say that's an important part of a healthy recovery from such incidents.
Virginia Tech administrators estimate 80 percent of students showed up for class today. "We're seeing the resolute, the confused, the angry and the numb," said Edward Spencer, associate vice president of student affairs. "Very much like the individual reactions that we all have to death."
About 200 counselors wearing purple armbands circulated on campus throughout the day. Many were volunteers, some from as far away as California. Chris Flynn, head of the campus counseling center, said his office expects a heavier workload for up to two years.
"The university has granted me as much resources as I've needed," Flynn said. "It's been extraordinary because they are aware of the mental health component part of this and that part has just been enormously gratifying."
Volunteers also will be available for students who need them during the summer.
On Monday, faculty encouraged students to talk about their experiences from the past week. Some discussions lasted longer than others.
Classes that formerly met in Norris Hall, where most of the deaths occurred, were moved to other buildings. The university kept their locations secret so reporters wouldn't bother the students.
Meanwhile, administrators and professors were dealing with their own grief. Last Monday morning, French and German classes were under way in Norris Hall when the shooting started. Instructors of both courses were killed.
One professor said he had two classes today and he went for counseling twice between them.
"The faculty members have brought with them, in most cases, another faculty colleague to be with them," said Mark McNamee, vice president of academic affairs.
Vice President of Student Affairs Zenobia Lawrence Hikes said she experienced "triggers," words and experiences that reminded her of the events of last week. "This morning, for me, it was meeting in a room that I was meeting in last Monday at about the same time." She said that experience set off memories of the entire experience.
Steve Siegel, who works for Denver's district attorney's office, helped administrators at Columbine High School in Colorado after the shootings there eight years ago when two teenagers fatally shot 12 fellow students, a teacher and themselves.
As students return it's important to create a sense of safety on campus, Siegel said.
"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," Siegel said.
But, he said, 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.
Even in an environment where that collective spirit is a source of strength, Siegel said, there also can be pressure to recover from the tragedy collectively. Administrators should remind students and faculty that individuals recover in different ways, he advised.
"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,'" Siegel said.
Results could be anything from anger to substance abuse or even suicide.
Siegel isn't advising Virginia Tech administrators, but said they seem to be responding well. On Friday, graduate student instructors learned how to help returning students.
Sherry Lynch with the on-campus counseling center told the instructors that if students have trouble concentrating because they can't stop thinking about the shootings, it can be helpful to just start writing. Lynch advised them to tell students that what they're feeling is normal.