Tech's students still grappling with grief
The dean of students said all the counseling services reported sharp increases this year.
BLACKSBURG -- Virginia Tech Dean of Students Tom Brown doesn't need statistics to tell him the past year was a difficult one for the university. The unrelenting traffic of students and phone calls into his office have made that clear.
The numbers, tallied last week, confirm that the campus is still coping with the worst school shooting in U.S. history. Brown's office assisted 1,054 students during the 2007-08 academic year, a 39 percent increase from the previous year.
The role of Brown's office is simple: to advocate for students. Students visit with problems ranging from their class schedules to emotional crises. Brown said the effects of the April 16, 2007, shootings at Tech have made it difficult for students to cope with stressors, large and small. Emotions felt shortly after the shootings have a way of creeping back when people least expect it, he said.
Statistics from other university groups that deal with students tell the same story. Tech's Care Team, a group of officials that meets regularly to discuss troubled students, handled 233 cases this past academic year. That's more than triple the caseload from the previous year for the team, which is chaired by Brown.
The Thomas E. Cook Counseling Center at Tech saw a 55 percent increase in the number of appointments students made with counselors there over the past two years, said its director, Chris Flynn. There's also been an increase in students who have received temporary detention orders, he said.
April 16 shooter Seung-Hui Cho was given a temporary detention order from a Montgomery County judge that led to him spending the night in Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Health in 2005.
Flynn credits some of the increase in appointments to the counseling center's higher profile after it received intense media attention for its handling of Cho. More students have been referred to the counseling center by faculty and the CARE team the past year, and more students know where to find them now, Flynn said.
But Flynn said he's amazed at the extent to which the loss of 33 students and faculty is still felt throughout the large university community. He cited surveys conducted last year that show about 50 percent of Tech students knew someone killed in the shootings and 80 percent knew someone who knew someone. He said victims' families should be comforted by the fact that their loved ones are not forgotten.
"People talk about them all the time," he said. "Maybe not at lunch in the dining hall, but in counseling, people talk about them all the time."
The counseling center expected a busy year. It increased the number of full-time counselors from 10 to 12 and increased hours for part-time staff. There are plans to expand the center's suicide prevention program. Flynn also hopes to add three more positions.
A case manager position was also added to the center, one of three such positions created as part of a $960,685 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. That person attends all temporary detention order hearings involving Tech students and follows up with them afterward, Flynn said.
Brown's office also received a case manager through the grant and added two other positions.
The counseling center, funded by student fees, typically sees only students enrolled in classes. But because of the shootings, it remained open to all students and last summer's graduates -- so this is the first chance counselors have had to take a break.
Brown said discussions about mental health will be part of new student orientation for the first time this year and he will talk to new students about the importance of alerting officials if they have concerns about a friend. Parental notification and the need for parents to communicate with the university will be stressed more than ever at orientation, he said.
Staff will also receive training on the often misunderstood Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 this summer. The federal law is designed to protect educational records of students but is cited in the report from the Virginia Tech Review Panel as one of the laws that hindered communication about Cho because it was misinterpreted.
Even without the emotional baggage created by the shootings, the 2007-08 school year was difficult. The university dealt with 11 student deaths: four from car crashes, three by suicide, two from illness, one from an accidental drowning and one cause not reported to the university. Apart from the April 16 shootings, that's the most student deaths in one academic year at Tech since 2001-02.
Brown often attends funerals or memorial services for students, but at a memorial service for a student this year, he needed to step outside. The cumulative emotional toll was too much.
"We tried our best to be supportive of those families and those friends," Brown said. "Was that harder this year? Yeah, it was. Did some of it seem even sadder, if you can imagine? Yeah ... You just get to a point where you just can't hear all that sadness."
As part of the department of education grant, Tech will establish itself as a model for threat assessment on college campuses. The project will include a report similar to those produced by the education department and the U.S. Secret Service on high school and middle school violence after shootings at Columbine High School in 1999.
As his office prepares to help write the book on college threat assessment, Brown said the most obvious lesson he's learned is that everyone deals with it differently, and recovery periods vary. For now, he's glad that those who do need help are asking for it.
"We think about the numbers and we think about the pace that we kept," he said. "But what if they didn't ask for help? That would've been a lot more of a burden."