The Race to Show Solidarity

Uproar over two Penn State students dressed as Virginia Tech shooting victims leads to public displays of remorse -- and an unusual request from the administration.
December 14, 2007

Soon after the shootings at Virginia Tech last April left 33 dead, students from colleges all over the country expressed their support publicly and privately, in ways big and small. They wore VT caps. They started Facebook groups and changed their profile pictures to the university's logo. They participated in vigils.

The sympathy didn't go unnoticed in Blacksburg, either. Just two weeks ago, its athletics department wrote in a letter that "no group showed more support for Virginia Tech students than the student body of Penn State."

That was before photos were discovered on Facebook last week showing two smiling Penn State students dressed (for Halloween) as victims of the shootings, complete with fake blood and bullet wounds. (The photos, by now widely disseminated, can be viewed here and here.) The administration has apologized for the two students' actions, but it noted that the First Amendment prevents the public university from punishing them.

It didn't take long for the backlash to ensue. Expletive-laced groups denouncing the two students' stunt cropped up on Facebook, and some Penn State alumni have even threatened to withhold further donations. Meanwhile, Nathan Jones, one of the students involved, told student news media that he'd "die before" apologizing, and created his own Facebook group in response, with pictures of other students dressed as victims of the September 11 attacks and JonBenet Ramsey. It was, to put it mildly, a potential public relations disaster in the making.

So Lisa Powers, the public information director, tossed off an idea to colleagues. In an e-mail last Friday morning, as reported by the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, she sought "a group of students (maybe student government leaders) to 'spontaneously' put together a Facebook site for Penn Staters to go and show their support for Virginia Tech."

What Powers and the administration didn't know at the time, however, was that students had already begun doing just that. "What I don’t think they realize is that we started doing that on our own, we didn’t need to be told, we already felt remorse," said Hillary Lewis, president of the University Park Undergraduate Association, the Penn State student government body. "We did things that were independent, not because we were told to."

Lewis, who also received Powers's e-mail last week, said she'd already been in the process of writing a letter to the editor of the Virginia Tech student newspaper, The Collegiate Times, which was published on Monday.

"If you were a student at Penn State, wouldn’t you too be ashamed of the actions of those two students?" Lewis said.

That's a question many other students on campus -- unsatisfied with Jones's explanation that the costumes weren't meant to be seen publicly and were worn "just for shock value" -- have been asking themselves.

"A few of my friends and I kind of decided that we wanted to do something about what we’ve been reading in the papers and to show that [it] doesn’t represent Penn State," said Stephen P. Rohrbach, a senior majoring in business economics. Rohrbach -- without the suggestion of the administration -- helped to organize a "Maroon and Orange Day" on Thursday that encouraged students to don the Virginia Tech colors. Some 15 to 20 gathered in front of the Old Main building for a photograph, Rohrbach said, and he saw the colors dotted around campus during the day.

"For me, it wasn’t about necessarily the number of people that got in on it," he said. "I’m disgusted with the actions of my peers, and I still support and will always support the Virginia Tech community, and that’s why I put my Virginia Tech shirt on today."

Powers, the Penn State spokeswoman, said she's "seen some orange on campus, but we are having a humongous ice storm. The pedestrian traffic is really low" to begin with, she pointed out. She said her e-mail was sent as a "suggestion" in response to student leaders who "wanted to know how they could separate themselves from the two individuals who had worn the costumes."

She acknowledged that several Virginia Tech-related groups already existed at Penn State, and that one had been "converted" to respond to the costume controversy. "Facebook’s really the medium for young adults, and it’s not really my avenue," Powers said.

While there have been secondhand reports of threats against the students involved, Powers said she didn't specifically know if any complaints had been filed.

"I won’t fault the administration because I understand where they’re coming from," Rohrbach said of the e-mail about the suggested spontaneity. "If I was an administrator, I would want the students to do something, but I also wouldn’t want to tell the students ... 'Hey, go do something.' From their point of view, it would be great for the students to do something on their own, and that’s what happened."


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