Tragedy Goes to School:
Virginia Tech Enforcers Become the Enablers
On a recent wind-swept May morning, the Virginia Tech campus quietly hummed with life. Students attended their final week of classes before exams. Parents loaded their children’s belongings. Dozens of visitors milled around the drill field, contemplating solemn memorials to the victims of April 16, just steps from where so many lives ended.
None of the students, parents or visitors were in danger of being ticketed or towed for misparking. No tickets have been written since April 16, and none were likely to be until after graduation. “It’s just not a priority,” said Steve Mouras, director of Virginia Tech’s Office of Transportation & Records Management.
On this campus still reeling from the largest mass murder in the history of the country, the lessons learned from the events of the last few weeks are only now beginning to sink in.
Richard McCoy, the manager of Tech’s Parking Services for the past 11 years, was just arriving at work when the first two killings occurred. Concerned for the safety of his staff, McCoy immediately pulled his officers off the streets. As the “normal” daily routines began, the second wave of shootings was reported. “Everyone had the police channel on,” McCoy remembered. “In all the police traffic coming across the radio, you could hear the gunshots.”
McCoy dismissed all but his essential personnel, as hundreds of law enforcement and emergency personnel swarmed the campus. They listened helplessly as the terrible news dribbled in. Late Tuesday night the toll became personal: one of their own was among the dead. (See the nearby article on Jarrett Lee Lane.)
The “Tragedy Industry”
Mouras was attending a conference in Philadelphia when he heard the news. In constant contact with McCoy, he hopped the first flight back and arrived that afternoon in nearby Roanoke. He was stunned to see the normally quiet airport filled to capacity with what Mouras called the “tragedy industry.”
“Don’t kid yourself; it’s not just the media,” Mouras said. “There are an awful lot of other people who have gear packed in boxes, vehicles designated and teams assigned. When there is a tragedy … they are on the road.”
Soon organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army had set up shop on the drill field. “They’re just here to help,” said Mouras. “But after a while, kind of weighing it all out, when does the helping become a problem and how do we deal with all that?”
With Norris Hall a grisly crime scene, over 100 satellite trucks, 300 media outlets, and probably twice that in related vehicles began to randomly assemble in different locations. Simultaneously, hundreds of parents descended onto campus to retrieve their children or search for those who hadn’t been heard from. Visitors, some empathetic, some just curious, began to swarm the area.
Tech had an emergency response plan, but by Tuesday morning, they were improvising, McCoy said, as was University Relations. There were no pre-planned lines of communication between that office and Parking Services.
From Enforcers to Enablers
“This place was out of control … We had gridlock on campus,” recalled Mouras. “The challenge was what do we do? Do we just tow the family member of someone who was deceased? Did we tow the VIP who … couldn’t find a parking spot?”
Sheer volume and the inability to identify their customers led to the decision not to do any enforcement. What they would attempt to do was manage what they could, which, in the words of Mouras, “… frankly, was not much for the first 72 hours.” The team decided to manage upwards from individual spaces, lots and roadways to service priority groups, beginning with law enforcement and emergency services. They needed to figure out who absolutely had to have parking and where they needed it.
With police unreachable by phone, e-mail “dysfunctional,” in Mouras’ words, cellphone service clogged, and no plan in place, the department became proactive, rather than await instructions from an overburdened leadership.
Liaisons were dispatched to the swamped University Relations group and local Blacksburg Transit, which Tech co-manages and comprises 96% of the ridership. Every available body was put on the street to help keep traffic moving. McCoy noted that although the parking office remained open, in retrospect he would have pulled those individuals as well. “Everybody should be cross-trained,” he said.
The President and a Catharsis at the Convocation
There would be no progress on Tuesday, with planning for the memorial convocation and the arrival of the president. “When the president shows up, that’s the only game in town,” said Mouras. “Unless you have vast resources, it will suck you in and that’s the only thing you do.”
Still, the convocation helped turn the tide, emotionally and materially. Students were dismissed from classes, lessening parking and transit requirements. Virginia’s governor released emergency funds enabling McCoy to bring on badly needed private security forces to help police lots and roadways.
With additional assistance from extra law enforcement personnel and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, McCoy slowly began funneling the media and visitor traffic to specific areas. If Wednesday the rules were made, by Thursday they were being enforced. Friday, the campus was back under control.
Meanwhile, grief counselors worked with the department’s managers to help them recognize signs of distress in their employees, and counseling was then made available to all faculty, staff and students. “We’ve all cried,” said Mouras. But there was, and is, much work remaining.
Healing in the Hokie Nation
With little time to do much more than react, McCoy knows there are lessons to learn from this experience. “Over the next several months, we will have to start putting together some things, specifically how to fix some of the issues we face,” he says.
The best moment McCoy recalled was the Monday morning that classes resumed. Students were not required to return if they accepted their existing grades. He looked out over a filling parking lot and, for the first time he could remember, was happy to see so many cars.
Eighty percent of Virginia Tech’s students returned for the end of school to make the statement that the Hokies “will prevail.”
Charles R. “Charlie” Munn III, CAPP, CPFM, is a graduate of Virginia Tech. Contact him at: email@example.com.
Jarrett Lee Lane, 22, of Narrows, VA, was one of the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings. A civil engineering major, Jarrett was preparing to graduate this May.
He was on track to complete a four year course of study in three years, but found time for recreational sports, church, and friends. He worked at the Virginia Tech Office of Transportation’s Site & Infrastructure Development, where he interned 15-20 hours a week. In addition, Jarrett worked his entire college career as a lot monitor for football and basketball games for Parking Services.
“He never missed a game,” said his supervisor, Parking Services Manager Richard McCoy. “He worked every game for three years that he was scheduled to work.” McCoy and Jarrett’s supervisor at Site and Infrastructure Development, David Dent, a longtime family friend, were invited by the family to speak at Jarrett’s memorial.
Jarrett had just earned a full post graduate scholarship and been awarded a graduate assistant’s slot at the University of Florida’s Coastal School of Engineering. His academic excellence was of no surprise to those who knew him; Jarrett was the 2003 valedictorian at Narrows High School.
“He was simply an outstanding young man,” recalled Steve Mouras, the director of the Office of Transportation and Records Management, which includes Parking Services as well as the Site and Infrastructure Development division. “We don’t have them making copies for us there. They are sitting at a computer; they’re working up CAD drawings for various projects we have going. His interest was in the hydrology side of the house.”
Indeed, on the morning of April 16, 2007, Jarrett hurried to his advanced hydrology class to turn in his last major paper of the semester. Jarrett was the only undergraduate in the class. That classroom was the first entered by the gunman. “He never had a chance,” Mouras recalled.
Virginia Tech has set up an assistance fund, the “Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund,” in honor of each of the victims, including Jarrett, at www.givingto.vt.edu.