December 17, 2018

The New Communication Environment

In ACIA’s discussions, many threads led to one theme: communication. The need for information is ageless. “What’s going on?” has always been an instinctive human response in any critical situation. So have “Are you OK?” and “I’m all right” — reaching out to people who are important to us to learn or tell that someone has survived a violent or dangerous event. But if the questions haven’t changed, the means of asking and answering have been changing with dizzying speed. It is already hard to remember a world without cell phones, instant messaging and social networks, but that world is actually not far back in time. Only a handful of years before the Virginia Tech shootings we didn’t yet live in the confident expectation that we could contact anyone anytime from anywhere. That assumption is now universal, or very close to it, and among many other consequences it has had a profound effect on how people experience and respond emotionally in a critical incident. A striking indication of that effect was a survey finding that the largest single reason for post-traumatic stress symptoms among Virginia Tech students after April 16 was, as Professor Michael Hughes reported, “not being able to contact friends to confirm their safety.” In a different survey, described by Steven D. Sheetz, one of the authors, students were asked how important they felt it had been to have a cell phone. The response was unsurprising:

Having your cell phone on that day, well it was really important. People who had cell phones really felt it was an important thing that they had that ability to communicate available to them on that day.

In Sheetz’s sample, nearly two-thirds said having a cell phone was “extremely important” and another 13 percent called it “quite important.” Other means of instant communication were important too, though there were notable differences between students and others in their use of communication channels other than cell phones and e-mail. Texting, instant messaging and Facebook were used by large majorities of students (73 percent, 75 percent and 66 percent, respectively) but by much smaller numbers of faculty and staff respondents (less than 5 percent of faculty and 10 percent of staff reported using Facebook on April 16, for example, compared with two-thirds of students). It can be guessed, though, that only two years later, those generational gaps would be narrower.

The revolution in communication technology has fascinating implications for incident management and critical incident analysis. One question is how use of that technology affects the emotional experience of a crisis. Does it reduce stress when people can tell others more quickly that they are safe, or learn that friends are OK? Or can it make the experience more stressful because unlike people in past crises, we have learned to expect instantaneous communication and become stressed much more quickly when we cannot reach someone? Steven Sheetz pointed out that it can be hypothesized that communicating will ease stress, but that such questions await further analysis:

We know that that happened in Facebook. In Facebook there were groups that were headed “I’m OK at Virginia Tech” and by 2 o’clock that day many people could look at the list of names for that group and know everyone they knew was okay.* So from a computer guy’s perspective, it’s like hey, technology matters. It probably reduced stress. Now the question is how do we figure out how to measure that.

Another set of questions has to do with how new communication channels can be used by institutions and authorities to inform, direct and reassure their communities in an emergency. Ned Benton, chair of the ACIA council, noted that one lesson from Virginia Tech for other universities is that they have to adapt communication strategies for the new technological environment. He cited responses to a 2008 survey conducted by the National Campus Safety & Security Project:

All kinds of universities and colleges answered what they do differently now, and one of the areas had to do with communication. How to broadcast, how to e-mail, how to make sure that if you communicated, whichever way you were communicating you could get the message and whichever way you wanted to get the message out there you could do it.

It is not just communication among people involved in a crisis, or among incident managers, that has been revolutionized in recent years. Communication to the larger public has also undergone profound change. It has been a cliche for some time to say that news, in a headline event like the Virginia Tech shootings, is now instantaneous and nonstop. It is rapidly becoming a cliche to add that news from conventional broadcast and print media is now accompanied by — or frantically trying to catch up with — a flood of information and images from spectators and participants, which reaches the public through the Internet and social networking sites without ever passing through any traditional news media structures. Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Foundation for Journalism and Trauma, recalled that when the July 7 terrorist bombings in London occurred in 2005,

A number of people sent their video to the BBC. A year later the head of online news for BBC said to me that if that happened this year those videos would have gone straight to the internet, they wouldn’t have gone to the BBC.

If that transformation is now widely recognized, though, it is less clear just how it has changed the way we experience critical incidents, and how it shapes the public’s response. Jeffrey Stern posed the question this way:

We just had the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, the first globally witnessed televised event. Now it’s become commonplace, everything from shock and awe in Baghdad to the O.J. Simpson chase to Michael Jackson to coverage of Virginia Tech and Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, the 9-11 attacks. We used to have an incident and it would affect the people right there, and everybody else would get the news on the radio later or the next day. Now we’re all a part of the incident on a global scale. That has to have a huge sociological, psychological impact. I was working in the White House the day of the Virginia Tech incident, and one thing that struck me was that within 24 hours we went from this bloodbath, this tragedy, to mourner-in-chief President Bush playing out this role before the blood has dried — this script of what we know we’re supposed to do because we’ve watched it so much. What is the psychological impact of the fact that whenever something happens everyone is a witness, globally and instantaneously? What is the impact for the future?

James Hawdon: There is a literature that doesn’t particularly look at mass media coverage, but the whole notion of communal bereavement where people who have no attachment to the victims still suffer trauma, some aspect of trauma. The classic study was done in Sweden after the sinking of a ferry there, and there was a traumatic event for the country. One could hypothesize that the more coverage we have the more widespread this effect is going to be.

Danny Axsom: People desire information in order to reduce uncertainty. And that includes about typical norms for bereavement. We don’t know how to act and we look for a lot of comparison information from other people and from the media. Whether that’s constructive is another question. People here were being advised to step away from the computer or the TV. But with the lack of information about what’s going on, there’s also a lack of information about what’s normative as far as adjusting. How should I be adjusting, how are other people adjusting? So you look and look. That’s not necessarily saying it’s good, but there’s a motivation for the audience to seek that information out.

In the new information era, we are flooded not just with instant facts but with instant speculation, opinion, unreliable early reports, spin, and guesswork. Arnold R. Isaacs commented:

While information spreads farther and faster than ever before, so does misinformation. Every reporter and every cop, everybody who deals with emergency situations, knows how chaotic and confusing and fragmented the story is during the initial stages. Even if individual reports are cautious and qualified — and obviously that’s not always the case — the way the process works today means that volume, intensity and repetition can make a whole that is much less careful than any of the individual parts. Think about the white van frenzy during the Washington sniper case. It was a flimsy story to begin with, there really wasn’t much there. Yet it had police stopping hundreds of white vans all over the mid-Atlantic states for days. And it obliterated the reports that did exist about the blue Chevy that was the actual vehicle used in the shootings. That’s an example of the echo effect, when something is repeated enough times that it starts to bounce back and forth: witnesses tell investigators and journalists things that are not new information or from their experience or observation, but just repeating what they’ve heard. Dave Cullen describes this process brilliantly in his book on Columbine. This doesn’t only complicate life for incident managers while something is happening. It can clutter up historical understanding as well. I’ll bet there are still people who think the Washington snipers were driving around in a white van.

Steven M. Gorelick,  professor of media studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, calls the phenomenon “cultural noise”:

A nonstop onslaught of rumors, partial knowledge, misinformation, self-proclaimed expert comment, nonsense, rumors and all sorts of craziness. This noise surrounds catastrophic and other incidents and complicates incident management and understanding. It comes from everyone from the evangelists to the scholars to the bloggers. They complicate the lives of people involved with this, they can offend, but they can’t be ignored. I’m not suggesting there’s anything that incident managers or sociologists can do about this. Much of this is protected speech.

Catastrophic events now can be safely said to occur almost 98 percent in real time. Even in less developed countries, virtually everyone who comes to witness a catastrophe is carrying the equivalent broadcasting power of a television station. They carry it with them. They broadcast from an event. It used to be that an event would occur and it would be some moments before society could get sense of what was going on and start building an account of it. But now noise occurs during an event.

Last point, all this stuff now sticks around. It used to be ephemeral. You’d see it then it’s gone. Today’s cyberspace is an infinitely expanding area where all the noise is still there. Noise that you all from Virginia Tech have moved on from, rumors, crazy stuff, it’s all still there, and even if it’s been ripped off the internet, you know it’s been mirrored or cached and it’s still really there.

Why does this matter? More than at any other time, anyone in the midst of a calamity with a clear, serious message to communicate — perhaps immediate enough to involve actual danger — now sends that message into a confused and noisy environment packed with obstacles that can completely stymie the message’s reception. Finding paths of communication amidst this confounding labyrinth, especially when the stakes are high and the danger great, is a serious challenge of the digital age.

Bruce Shapiro noted that underlying the noise is a fierce competition to define what an event means, and to use that meaning to influence political or policy or other consequences:

Charlotte Ryan, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, says that power is the ability to control rules, resources or meaning.* Maybe one defining factor of critical incidents is that they overwhelm or undermine the ability to control rules, resources and meaning. I think where these collisions happen in the aftermath of critical incidents, what really matters more often than not is who will have control over the meaning. Whose story is it becomes critical in the aftermath.

Who are some of these stakeholders who have a role, a stake, in shaping the meaning of an event? There are disaster response agencies, there are mental health professionals, there are educators, religious leaders, political leaders, organized victims. And institutions; we’ve heard about the university attempting to control how the story gets told. These are all stakeholders. Then there are hijackers of meaning. In the walk on campus we were talking about religious proselytizers who came to the campus trying to manipulate the meaning of this event to get people into their sects. We have talked about pundits who are hijackers of meaning, who try to graft a misleadingly simple narrative line onto something that’s really quite complex. There are politicians who seize upon critical incidents and then hijack them.

I think the question of roles and responsibilities in shaping the aftermath has something to do with recognizing that meaning needs to be put together through the combined efforts of all the stakeholders rather than competitive storytelling. It’s a big challenge.

* More information on the use of Facebook after the April 16 events can be found in S. Vieweg, L. Palen, S. Liu, A. Hughers, J. Sutton, “Collective Intelligence in Disaster: Examination of the Phenomenon in the Aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting.” Proceedings of the 5th International ISCRAM Conference, Washington D.C. (May 2008)

* Charlotte Ryan and Samuel Alexander, “‘Reframing’ the presentation of environmental law and policy,”

Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, 33:3 (2006) pp. 563-592

Jerzy Nowak’s Story II

My wife had a network in the community. Anywhere I went, to the bank, to the insurance company, to some utilities, it was like a red carpet for me. The support was tremendous. I continue with this network, fostering what she had established.

I tried to keep my daughter occupied, so there were always some friends coming. But at one point my daughter came and she doesn’t like hugs and she came to me and said dad, when is it over? When will we have a normal life?

An overwhelming challenge for me was handling parcels and letters. I also got close to 2,000 e-mails, various religious paraphernalia, numerous quilts, which were given to shelters. I learned that if I don’t open the parcels, I can just go to the post office and put on a sticker that says I refused to take them. That helped but it was truly overwhelming. There was also a certain level of anticipation for the return of gratitude which I couldn’t do. We developed a thank-you letter and it was published in the Washington Post, Roanoke Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, one French Canadian paper and the Halifax Herald. I also privately sponsored a thank you note for the news coverage in Poland, in my home town and university. That was the extent I could manage to respond. Various religious groups and zealots would resend what I sent back over and over and over. And then you had this flock of lawyers after you because somehow they learned that my wife was not a full-time employee and now we’re not getting any compensation.

About my family: Francine at the time was finishing university in British Columbia. Performing Arts and French, two majors. She handled the media and I will get back to that. Very articulate in both languages. She finished university and we all thought that she was taking this loss the best, but I was very wrong. Francine sort of became afraid of the next step in her life. She had big dreams, short term, long term, big dreams. Suddenly they disappeared. She immersed herself totally in social networks. She went to study theater directing in Paris, France, for a year and I thought that would help but it didn’t. She quit the second year of the master’s program. So she’s actually my biggest worry. A very talented young lady. She started the local anti-gun organization but somehow just cannot stay focused. She always refers to her mother, always talks about her. She got a part time teaching job, she teaches French and arts in a private school in Vancouver now with childhood education props my wife developed. She wants to mimic her mother’s career path now.

Sylvie was 12 when it happened. How does someone move on after a loss like this? Her world was violently shattered. Out of I believe five children who lost a parent on April 16, she was the only one who lost her mother. We didn’t know each other. I worked. My wife took care of everything. We had to rebuild our relationship from scratch. This picture I found was taken on the 3rd of July 2007, about three months after. Look at her hair. She didn’t cut this hair until last fall. She was hiding behind it.

During the funeral time when the family came, Jocelyne’s brother, who was an athlete, brought a videotape with my wife winning  a triathlon competition in Nova Scotia. Sylvie said what is a triathlon, and I had to explain it to her, and she said, “I want to do a triathlon.” And in June she got enrolled in the triathlon. She was a very good swimmer and runner so she just had to do cycling. In the last week of September there was a meet in Shelby, North Carolina, and she went there and won the competition. She won again in Richmond next year. Her time was almost four minutes better than the boy who won the competition. I could see her running like a marathon runner, passing everyone. She came to me and said dad I am not crying but dad I would like my mom to see me.

The school provided a counseling service that fall for children who lost their parents. This was a mixed blessing because they were taking these kids out of class for the sessions twice a week so then they had to catch up. The teachers didn’t like that. She did not open up, she did not talk to anybody. For a half a year she just sat there and didn’t say anything. Eventually she did start to build some rapport with one of the girls and with a counselor. But the next year she moved to the high school, so they tried to transfer her to  another counselor and then another one. And she came to me one day, she was 14 at the time and said dad, I hate counselors. She said they’re like spiders trying to grab me in their web.


As Jerzy Nowak’s experience showed, notifying victims’ families was an agonizingly slow process. It took until well into the day after the shooting for the last families to receive official word of their loved ones’ deaths. For those survivors, the tragedy was still happening. But even before notifications had been completed, the university was beginning its effort to get past the immediate shock and pick up the threads of community life. On the afternoon of April 17, a convocation ceremony was held, with President Bush, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, leading university officials and local religious leaders among those attending to offer statements of sympathy and support. Poet Nikki Giovanni’s closing words at the convocation came to symbolize the community’s determination to recover:

“We are the Hokies.

“We will prevail.

“We will prevail.

“We will prevail.

“We are Virginia Tech.”

At 8 o’clock that evening thousands of students and other members of the university community gathered on the drillfield for a candlelight vigil to remember and mourn the victims. Those who were there recall the convocation, the vigil, and other swiftly organized commemorative events as powerful moments of togetherness, reflecting a strong determination to find unity and strength after the tragedy.

There were also, however, areas of uncertainty and confusion, some of it avoidable and some not, in the days after the shootings. One set of decisions that some in the community look back on with mixed feelings had to do with how to finish the academic year and whether students should remain on campus or go home. Under university policy, students could accept the grade they had earned up to April 16 and not attend the remaining classes or do any further assignments. They could continue to do classwork if they chose, and if the additional work improved their record that would give them a higher grade for the course. But if completing further assignments would lower their grade, they would still get the one they had on April 16. Guidance for faculty members, as one of them recalled, was to announce that policy and “to be as flexible and forgiving as possible” in carrying it out.

John Ryan: Basically, students could just decide to take the grade they had and go home.  Many students attempted to come back and go to class but it was meaningless. So after the first day back many classes just emptied out.

Laura Agnich: They went back the first day, so they were kind of looking for that structure, for a sense of community, but then it was lost and they just went home.

Faculty members were also unsure — and received little guidance — on how to deal with the event in the classroom when classes resumed.

Ryan: Many faculty felt that they were not prepared to have this discussion, they weren’t trained to have this discussion, they weren’t comfortable. That’s something to think about too, about the various roles that people are expected to play. And you’ll read in the Review Panel report that a lot of the people who were dealing with the families had not necessarily been trained to do that work, that it was a very ad-hoc sort of thing.

Donald Shoemaker: We were never told and still don’t know who the injured victims were. And they could have been in your class. Those of us teaching courses on violence had to be careful about what to say and how to say it because you never knew who might have been closely affected. We did have counselors outside the classrooms when we returned. But there was no personal communication with professors about the students in their class who were directly affected.

Donna Alvis-Banks, then a reporter for the Roanoke Times, covered the tragedy not just as a journalist but as a local resident who cared about Virginia Tech and the community and felt deep sympathy for the victims and survivors. But that sympathy was not always reciprocated. As has become a pattern in highly newsworthy tragedies, intensive news coverage quickly came to be seen as intrusive, and journalists — even when they tried to cover the story respectfully and humanely — often encountered deep suspicion and hostility from those they were attempting to write about. In addition, authorities worried about legal liability issues sought to keep journalists away from anyone who might speak unguardedly or critically about official policies or actions. Banks recalled:

The families of wounded victims and those who were deceased were warned not to talk to the press and I think they were told a lot of scary things about the press. I remember talking to one family. They didn’t speak great English and it was hard to explain to them what I was doing. And they told me, we’re scared of the press, we’re scared of the media, and that made it hard. Sometimes I would go to the memorials, and students would have signs up, “Media go away,” but I’d see one of them in tears and I just did what came naturally which was to go up and put my arms around them. A lot of times they didn’t want to talk to me and that was OK, but a lot of times they did want to talk to me.

Like “aftermath,” the word “survivors” does not have a single, precise definition. In its narrowest sense, the word identifies two specific groups: those who were in the room or the building and at risk of being hit by Cho’s gunfire, but were not killed; or alternatively, family members and close friends of those who died. More broadly,  it can mean a wider category of people who were not directly in danger or closely connected with the victims but were close to the event and strongly affected by it. That definition would include the student body and faculty as a whole, the rest of the university community, and perhaps also the residents of Blacksburg and the surrounding area. Even more broadly, to the extent that instant and highly intensive coverage of the shootings engaged a nationwide audience in the story and the compelling emotions it caused, viewers and readers across the entire country might be considered survivors, at least momentarily. In a somewhat different sense, the university itself can be called a survivor too. Like the individuals affected by the tragedy, the institution also experienced loss, stress, disruption of normal life and a struggle for recovery — including, as more than one speaker observed, a struggle not to let the shootings come to define the university’s identity.

Different categories of survivors, obviously, had different needs to be met. To work with the most immediate group — victims’ families, injured students, or students “closely connected with the event” — the university established an Office of Recovery and Support. Recovery coordinator Megan Armbruster recalled efforts in the first several months to bring the campus back to normal life:

Students return for the final week of classes, we have commencement, then in June the Office of Recovery and Support was created. We took over the work of the family liaisons in August, right as school was starting, so they were with the families through the summer. In that time we created and completed and dedicated the memorial. Classes resumed and case managers were hired in the Dean of Students Office and the Cook Counseling Center to work with students who were having mandatory psychological evaluations. We had some big fall events that I think helped the larger community — a football game against East Carolina University and a Dave Matthews concert. And I think they were really meaningful for people getting together.

Her own conclusion from those events, Armbruster added, was “if people could have just stayed in Blacksburg all summer and have picnics on the drillfield that would’ve been the best thing ever.” Working with the families, Armbruster acknowledged, had its difficult moments from the start. In the original group of family liaisons the range of knowledge and experience was quite wide:

We had new employees, they hadn’t been at VT very long, all the way to an associate vice president for student affairs. The families who had folks who had a longer tenure at VT, had a bigger picture of Virginia Tech, had more knowledge of resources perhaps, those families had one experience, vs. families who had liaisons who had lesser knowledge of VT bureaucracy. Very few if any had knowledge of Virginia government or the compensation fund available for physical injury, funds available for victims of crime. Those were things that people at VT had no knowledge of. Now the Virginia legislature has mandated that any time there are victims of crime, government agencies come in and help navigate all of this. What we should have done was marry victim advocates from the state with our family liaisons, because those advocates have so much knowledge about what’s available for victims of crime that our liaisons didn’t know. And we’re still as of last spring introducing our families to those people. So it’s still taking a long time.

Jerzy Nowak’s Story I

Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, a 49-year-old French instructor, was one of five Virginia Tech faculty members who died in the April 16 shootings. Her Polish-born husband, Jerzy Nowak, a biochemist, was head of the department of horticulture in the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Nowak subsequently took a leave of absence from that position to establish the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and serve as its director. The Center initiated its operation in July 2008 and is housed on the same floor in Norris Hall where Couture-Nowak and 11 of her students were killed. At ACIA’s meeting, Nowak recalled his experiences on that day:

My 12-year-old daughter’s school called and said Sylvie has not been picked up after school. So I called my wife. I did not know she was teaching in Norris Hall. I called her department and I asked where did Jocelyn teach? “She taught in Norris Hall,” the secretary responded. So I quickly jumped into the car and went to pick up my daughter at the school and asked my secretary to brief me on the way about the developments. We went home. I got a call from my secretary who said at 4 o’clock there will be a briefing for the victims and friends. I told Sylvie that we have to go to Virginia Tech, so make sure you grab something to eat.

We arrived at Virginia Tech and there were a lot of people and administrators running around. Nobody wanted to take any questions. I finally became agitated and pinpointed one of them to help me to call the hospitals. Eventually a lady called and after a while she said, your wife is not in any of the hospitals. I took it at first as good news. But then I said oh my god, and the administrator heard me and came to me and said you know, she could be among the dead. I said you did not need to tell me that. I turned around and left and went home.

Another person who lost her husband told me this story about a year and a half after the shooting. She used her maiden name, and she didn’t have her marriage certificate. And so she was harassed about even being able to ask for information. Eventually with the support of friends she was listed. Because her husband’s name was somewhere at the top of the alphabet, she was called at 7:30 that evening. There were a lot of people around. She approached the table and in a very loud voice, among all these people standing around, a policeman gave the name of her husband and said he has been killed. Her legs got soft and here’s what she told me:  “I was very vulnerable. And I was not protected from the insensitive individual. At that moment I felt victimized twice.” She turned around and left, walking away down a very long corridor between lines of people, all staring. “I could not cry.”

After I got home a friend came and we immediately got on the phone.  We confirmed that my wife had not been admitted to any of the hospitals.  I said to my friend, crying, “I am ready.”  There was a command center where you could call a hotline and get information, and they were supposed to call me with updates. Never called me. My daughter went to her mom’s bed because she wanted to “smell her”. Then, at 11:30 in the night I received a call from the provost that he and another administrator were coming to see me. I forgot that we moved literally four or five weeks ago and that he would go to the old address, so I called his phone but couldn’t get in touch. Eventually at 12:30 they arrived. The provost was compassionate. And he told me what happened.

The Event

April 16, 2007, was “a bizarre weather day,” Ryan recalled, “an April day with 30 mph winds, snow and paper blowing across campus. The wind can really howl here.”  His colleague, sociology professor James Hawdon, continued with the chronology of that morning:

Cho wakes up early. At about 6:47 a.m. he’s spotted outside West Ambler Johnston dormitory. At 7:02 Emily Hilscher arrives at her dorm room, which was her routine. Over the weekend she would spend time with her boyfriend and he would drop her off on Monday morning. About 7:15 Cho has somehow entered West AJ and he shoots Emily. Ryan Clark, the RA who rooms next to her, hears a commotion, comes over to help her, at least that’s what the police believe, and is also shot. About 7:20 the VT police receive a call. They’re there in about 4 minutes.

According to a revised Review Panel chronology issued in December 2009, university police were quickly joined by officers from the Blacksburg police department and Virginia State Police. At 8:14 a.m. Hilscher’s roommate arrived and told detectives that Emily’s boyfriend owned guns and practiced with them. Almost immediately, Wendell Flinchum, the chief of the Virginia Tech police department, contacted administrators with that new information.  Hawdon continued:

Chief Flinchum informs them that they have a suspect. During this time officers are searching for the boyfriend. They search the parking lots, they’re searching his home, and they cannot find him. They become confident that he had indeed left campus, which he had. At 9:01 Cho is at the Blacksburg post office mailing what becomes the infamous package that he sends to NBC news.  At 9:05 the second period of classes begins. Between 9:15 and 9:30 Cho is spotted outside Norris Hall. This period of time is when he was chaining the doors shut, although no one reports having seen him actually chain the doors up.

At 9:24 the police finally find Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend off campus in his pickup truck. They begin questioning him and at that point begin to get a little concerned. At 9:26 the university administration sent an e-mail to everyone on campus, informing us that there had been a shooting at West Ambler Johnston and urging us to be cautious, to basically stay put. As this is happening, the police perform a residue analysis on Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend. It comes back negative and they now know they have not correctly framed the incident. At the same time Cho goes into Norris Hall and commits the deadliest school shooting to date, killing 30 and wounding 13. He starts shooting at 9:40. At 9:42 the police receive a 911 call, they are there at 9:45. The doors were chained and it took them five minutes to shoot through one of the machine shop doors and enter the building.

My office is about 300 yards from Norris Hall. I have a direct view. There were dozens of officers there by 9:50, Virginia Tech police, Blacksburg police, Montgomery county police and state police. Shortly afterward there were also FBI agents. At this time a second e-mail goes out to the campus, advising that a gunman is loose on campus and everyone should stay in buildings and away from windows. At 9:51 Cho shoots himself. At 10:17 we get a third e-mail saying classes are cancelled and we are told again to stay inside, lock our doors and keep away from the windows. At 10:52 we get another e-mail, informing us for the first time that there were multiple victims at Norris Hall.

Ned Benton pointed out that the timeline lists official communications, but that private, unofficial messages were also an important means of spreading information. Media reports too often reached the campus community well before e-mails from the university administration. Several participants offered examples:

John Ryan: Our executive secretary in our department has a daughter who works in Burruss Hall, and the daughter called with the information about the West AJ shooting probably 20 minutes to a half an hour before the first e-mail came out. Then people in the office started listening to the police scanner…

Megan Armbruster: My brother called me from Denver before I got anything official because CNN was reporting it before anyone else.

Armbruster, who subsequently became recovery coordinator for both the Dean of Students Office and the Division of Student Affairs, recalled that as soon as news of the shootings began to spread,

Families were immediately calling, texting, trying to get hold of their students and eventually 32 families weren’t hearing from their kids or spouses and they started driving to campus. Families of the injured students were going through a similar process. They were calling friends and friends were saying they’re at the hospital. Identifications began and there’s the story of one parent who was calling all over and finally got hold of a nurse who said we don’t have identification or a picture of your son. The mother had a picture of her son on her cell phone and sent it to the nurse on her cell phone so that the nurse could see the picture and say yes, your son’s here at the hospital.

The Chronology

Turning to the background of the April 16 events, Ryan gave a summary of an official chronology, compiled by the Virginia Tech Review Panel, that starts with Seung Hui Cho’s birth in Korea and his immigration with his family to the United States:

Cho exhibits difficulties in grade school and high school, but it seems to have been dealt with quite effectively by mental health professionals. And one of the things you’ll notice in the report is that his family seems to be quite supportive, concerned, involved in his life, at least until he gets to Virginia Tech.

His freshman year here seemed to go pretty well. No reports of any major incidents. Sophomore year became more problematic. He came in as a business information technology major, but he switches to English. He exhibits quite a bit of interest in writing. He writes a novel and submits it for publication and it’s rejected and the report implies that might have been a significant incident in his life. Junior year is when the problems seem to become much more apparent. His family sees him withdrawing. He has problems in the poet Nikki Giovanni’s class. She is a very imposing powerful teacher and powerful person, so to read that she’s intimidated by a student is really quite shocking. Dr. Lucinda Roy was chair of the English department at that time, and she begins to petition the various offices on campus for help with the student. At the same time she takes him on as a student because Nikki Giovanni doesn’t want him in her class anymore.

Just before New Year of 2006, he’s admitted under a TDO [temporary detention order] to St. Albans hospital in Radford, 12 miles from here. He is evaluated the next day and released after I think two or three independent evaluations that he’s not a danger to himself or others. Under the family protection act, FERPA, his parents are not involved or informed of any of these difficulties, including the TDO, given his age and so on. So then we’re into the spring semester. The weapons, the ammunition are purchased. From my reading of the report, his contact with mental health services has stopped at this point.

The Setting

In the opening session of ACIA’s  Virginia Tech conference, John Ryan sketched the setting and earlier events leading to the April 16 tragedy:

You are on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Beginning in the 1980s the preferred name was Virginia Tech. This is a public land-grant university, founded in 1872. You’re in Blacksburg, Virginia, which has a population of about 40,000. And you’re in the New River Valley, on a plateau which sits between the Allegheny mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains. This university is known for engineering, architecture, science, business, agriculture. In the last few years it’s been emphasizing liberal arts, humanities and social sciences, trying to become more comprehensive. We have 30,739 students, about 24,000 undergraduates. We have about 1,400 faculty. The mascot is the Hokie bird, sort of a turkey-like creature on steroids. It used to be the Virginia Tech fighting gobbler, but somewhere along the line the fighting gobbler became the hokie bird. The team is called the Hokies, and where that comes from is a cheer.

What is the lifespan of a critical incident?

What is the lifespan of a critical incident?

A disaster or violent event happens. After some hours or days buildings stop shaking, winds die down, flood waters drain away, gunfire and explosions cease, or fires go out. In following days or weeks, survivors are found and treated, the dead are counted and named, wreckage is cleared, help begins to come. Gradually, the event fades off front pages and television screens. People go back to work and school and begin to resume the routines of daily life, with pauses for mourning rituals. Damage is repaired; victims are memorialized, in stone or living gardens or spontaneous shrines. Eventually, the world seems normal and ordinary again, at least outwardly. But when in this progression can it be said that the incident is over? Or did it really end at all?

The word customarily used for the later life of an event is “aftermath.” That phase was pinpointed as the focus of discussion when the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College and the Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention assembled a multidisciplinary group of scholars, administrators, mental health specialists and journalists in Blacksburg, Virginia, to deliberate and reflect on the consequences and reverberations from the April 16, 2007, shootings on the Virginia Tech campus. The meeting took place from July 22 to 24, 2009 — two years, three months and one week after a seriously mentally ill student named Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people in a dormitory and a classroom building and then killed himself, in what is believed to be the worst mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.

At the opening session, Ned Benton, ACIA’s first executive director and subsequently chair of the ACIA Council, set the framework for the proceedings: “There’s a dynamic between learning about the event here at Virginia Tech and at the same time asking some higher level questions about aftermath dynamics, about what happens in the days, weeks and months after the incident. We believe that it’s important for us to ground our analysis in cases and to engage with the perspectives of the people who were actually involved. So we are doing a case analysis, we are learning from a case, but we are asking some broader questions at the same time.”

The word aftermath has an interesting and evocative history. Its use has been traced back to the 1520s, when it meant a second crop of grass grown after the first had been harvested. It combines “after” with -math, derived from an Old English word for mowing. Betty Kirby of Central Michigan University pointed out that in the beginning it “actually had a rather positive meaning.” But when the idea of mowing shifted from literal to metaphoric, the sense of the word changed. This shift can be attributed to some extent to early wars and battles that often occurred in the fields. Most often, Kirby noted, “it currently refers to the consequences after an unpleasant or disastrous event. So ‘after mowing’ took on the meaning of after people have been mowed down, after they’ve been killed.”*

Varying definitions suggest different answers to the question of when — and whether — an aftermath comes to an end. Some dictionaries define aftermath as a space of time: “the period immediately following a usually ruinous event” (Merriam-Webster). That does not say when it ends, but by definition a period of time must come to an end at some point. Other definitions, though, make the word synonymous with “consequence” or “result,” as in the American Heritage Dictionary: “A consequence, especially of a disaster or misfortune.” Since some results are transitory but others are permanent, under that definition there can be no clear end to an aftermath.

Further complicating the question, the aftermath of an event like the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings is to a large extent a subjective phenomenon, rather than an objective one. Several years after the event, those most deeply affected by it are still in its aftermath by any definition of that word. At the same time, though, for a great many in the Virginia Tech community — students who had not even entered the university when the shootings took place, for example — the tragedy is far enough in the past and distant enough from their lives and experience that they are not in any meaningful way in its aftermath. As for the institution itself, there may similarly be no definitive way to decide when the aftermath is over. But as became amply clear in ACIA’s discussions, issues arising from the shooting are still prominent in various areas of the university’s life. As long as memories of the event remain emotionally important to many in the community, and as long as related issues continue to demand time and attention from the leadership, administrators, and members of the faculty, Virginia Tech will still be experiencing the aftermath of the shootings, however imprecise the word may be.

* Kirby noted that some have found that meaning in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1873 poem “Aftermath.” One theory is that it refers to the 1872 Modoc War in northern California and southern Oregon, one of the last Indian wars. It has also been speculated that Longfellow was writing about the Civil War. In that interpretation, the dry leaves in the path represent the bodies of the dead, and the falling snow and the crows’ call are references to death. The poem reads:

When the summer fields are mown,
When the birds are fledged and flown,
And the dry leaves strew the path;
With the falling of the snow,
With the cawing of the crow,
Once again the fields we mow
And gather in the aftermath.

Not the sweet, new grass with flowers
Is this harvesting of ours;
Not the upland clover bloom;
But the rowen mixed with weeds,
Tangled tufts from marsh and meads,
Where the poppy drops its seeds
In the silence and the gloom.

A Note To Readers

In the pages that follow, speakers’ words have been edited for greater clarity and to avoid repetition and confusing or extraneous matter. In addition, excerpts do not necessarily appear in the document in the order in which they were spoken at the conference.

Also, in recognition of Virginia Tech’s desire not to let its name and identity become synonymous with the sad event that was the subject of this meeting, this document will follow what has become established custom on the campus and use the date, 4-16 or April 16,  rather than the university’s name, as the usual shorthand reference for the shootings,

– Arnold “Skip” Isaacs,  Editor