‘After Virginia Tech’

Author discusses new book on the impact of the mass shooting and how survivors tried to honor the dead and prevent future tragedies.

April 18, 2019
 

On April 16, 2007, a gunman murdered 32 students and professors at Virginia Tech. Other mass shootings (including on college campuses) have followed, but the words "Virginia Tech" evoke a particular sense of the shock of what happened there in 2007.

After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings (University of Virginia Press) tells the story of what happened after that terrible day. Thomas Kapsidelis, the author, is a journalist and a fellow at Virginia Humanities. Via email, he responded to questions about the book.

Q: What do you see as the key evolution you document of many of the survivors and family members of the slain at Virginia Tech in terms of how they responded?

A: It’s impossible to generalize about the experiences of survivors, especially in a community as large and diverse as Virginia Tech. Some of the survivors whose work I reported on in this book came to advocacy very soon after the shootings. Others may have taken some time, or been active at certain times and less so at others. Three of the graduates I followed worked in advocacy over much of the decade after the shootings. But they are quick to point out, and I agree with this, that the work of Tech survivors who may not be known to the public but who have persevered and have accomplished so much personally and professionally, must also be recognized. As one parent told me, “Whether the survivors choose to go forward as advocates for policy change or to continue with their previously chosen careers, they show strength and resiliency.”

Q: Certain names -- Columbine and Sandy Hook -- have come to be identified with certain kinds of mass shootings. What has Virginia Tech come to mean?

A: The Virginia Tech tragedy changed how higher education administrators in Virginia and across the nation view campus safety. A timely notice when there is a threat -- which was delayed at Virginia Tech -- would now seem to be a given. Likewise, the establishment of threat-assessment teams gives colleges and universities an organized way to intervene before a problem becomes an emergency. Sadly, some of these reforms are more difficult to replicate in our own communities, as shown by shootings in which the perpetrator was a person who showed signs of problems but slipped through the system for any number of reasons. Likewise, even with the increased awareness and strategies that have emerged since Virginia Tech, safety depends on vigilance and everyone doing their part. In my book, I quote a Virginia mental health official advising his colleagues, "Don’t become complacent … and don’t forget that the eyes of the world are now on you all the time."

Q: How has Virginia Tech (the university) balanced the need to memorialize the dead, and to promote the normal functioning of a large university?

A: The April 16 Memorial is on Virginia Tech’s historic Drillfield, in front of the main administration building and just steps away from Norris Hall, where 30 of the 32 were killed before the gunman took his own life in the front of a French class. I’ve been there many times and never fail to see someone stop and pay respects at the 32 “Hokie stones” inscribed with the names of the victims. The memorial grew from a tribute started by a student group, Hokies United, in the days after the shootings. A survivor of the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings told me the memorial at Tech helped drive interest in dedicating a larger memorial at UT, which took place in 2016.

Norris Hall is still in use. Renovations on the second floor, where the attack took place, included space for a new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, founded by a professor whose wife, a French instructor, was killed.

The university initially canceled classes for its annual Day of Remembrance, but resumed a regular schedule in 2012. The annual remembrance continues, however, and includes a memorial 3.2-mile run and walk. Activities have included displays from the huge collection of memorial tributes and items from around the world that are under the care of the university’s archivist. Among these tributes is an oversized, wood-bound book of condolences sent to Tech in 2007 from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When I was completing my book, I was amazed to find that I had snapped a picture of the MSD tribute when it was on display for the 10th anniversary memorial weekend at Tech, a year before the Parkland shootings.

Amid the deep sorrow at Virginia Tech, the many questions of accountability would make any immediate recovery even more difficult. Time cannot heal all wounds. But I think the dignity, love and determination of the survivors have buoyed the Tech community. And just like the survivors we don’t hear about, there are many others -- faculty, administration and employees -- whose compassion will always be remembered.

Q: What lessons should higher education learn from Virginia Tech?

A: The safety and well-being of everyone in the campus community must be a priority. Universities should examine their complex systems to ensure they are responsive to the needs of students, faculty and staff -- and families. Having a safe campus doesn’t just happen. It needs to be tended and the product of communication with all involved. This goes beyond gun violence, given the many troubling issues facing colleges and universities.

Q: Campus carry has spread in the years since Virginia Tech (and many other shootings). Why do you think that the efforts of Virginia Tech survivors haven't been effective in preventing this?

A: Virginia Tech survivors spoke out against this in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, and I sense the movement for campus concealed carry in Virginia has waned over the years even as other gun rights have expanded nationally. In Texas, a Virginia Tech graduate whom I wrote about in the book was in the forefront of opposing campus concealed carry, which took effect in 2016 but only after earlier defeats in the Legislature. There is obviously renewed discussion across the nation about the role of armed staff and individuals in schools. As of 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more states banned campus concealed carry rather than allowed it. Nearly half the states leave the decision up to the institution.

It’s important to note that Tech survivors, families and community members have become influential and respected for their advocacy in the areas of guns, safety and healing. Survivor advocacy has long been a force in the American gun violence debate, and we’ve seen that most recently with the energy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and the support they’ve generated. But one scholar told me the Tech community deserves recognition for helping create a template for involvement, in a time when the social media channels that are so effectively used today were just in their infancy. Added another expert who is an ally of the Tech families, “Had those families retreated, I think that you might have a very different outcome today.”

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