NIU, Virginia Tech learn how to bounce back from shootings

Published: 8/27/2008 11:59 PM

When police responded to the mass shooting at Virginia Tech University, they found dead victims collapsed on the floor, their cell phones ringing constantly from loved ones wanting to know about them.

It's an image that still chills Harvey Barker, who helped lead grief counselors that day, helping emergency responders come to terms with such moments.

After the shootings, Barker broke the news to the families of several students who died.

"It was the toughest thing I've had to do in 27 years in my profession," he said. "There was no one else to do it, so we did it."

Barker was in Chicago Wednesday with his counterpart from DeKalb, Michael Flora, who led counselors responding to the Valentine's Day shooting, which left six dead and 18 wounded at Northern Illinois University.

Flora heads the Ben Gordon Center, which helped NIU offer counseling. Barker leads New River Valley Community Services in Blacksburg, Va., site of the April 16, 2007, shooting.

The two mental health managers held a series of seminars this week to compare lessons learned from the shootings, and how to respond to a future crisis.

While an estimated 80 percent of people will not need professional counseling following a tragedy, both treatment centers saw a surge in the number of requests for help after the shootings.

It's important not to rush recovery efforts. When Virginia Tech held a convocation the day after the attack with chants of "Let's Go, Hokies," Barker said, it made for good TV, but there was uncontrollable sobbing and people fainting in the stands.

Today, some people are still dealing with the grief. One Tech student whose roommate was shot didn't seek treatment until a year after the shootings, then ended up dropping out of school.

"Recovery is not a sprint," Barker said, "it's a marathon."

One important way to help, Flora said, is to show people that they are not suffering alone.

That's why candlelight vigils at both campuses, and signs of support from other schools and community residents are important.

Along those lines, to welcome students back to classes this week, community volunteers have started a "Huskies on Parade" program.

Statues of elaborately decorated dogs will be put on display at storefronts around town, and will ride in the Homecoming Parade Oct. 18.

The fiberglass canines will then be auctioned off online to raise funds for the Feb. 14 Student Scholarship Fund.

Such responses may seem slight in the face of tragedy, but counselors say not to underestimate the power of solidarity.

Patients at the Ben Gordon Center painted their huskies, and others have latched onto them as symbols of their recovery.

"It's something tangible to talk about recovery with," Flora said. "It's a marker to show resiliency."