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For Next Disaster, More Help For Victims
Confusion at Tech Led to New Law

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

The chaos of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 didn't end when the gunman, Seung Hui Cho of Centreville, killed himself. There were wounded people to treat, families of the deceased to notify, countless traumatized victims to counsel and important information to be provided and separated from the rampant rumors.

The panel created by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) in the wake of the shootings examined the aftermath as well as the violence. As a result of its work, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill last month requiring Virginia's colleges, health departments and emergency management agencies to include victim assistance groups in their response plans, and to notify such groups as soon as a disaster erupts.

"We had students who survived trying to counsel other students," said Del. Stephen C. Shannon (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the bill at Kaine's request along with Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). "It's simply not a good scenario when you have people who are traumatized trying to provide professional counseling services to other people. Governor Kaine thought it was important to try to codify how we respond to these types of cases."

The governor also recruited Carroll Ann Ellis, the director of the Fairfax County police victim services division, to serve on the panel reviewing the incident. Ellis helped write a section of the panel's report, dealing with the immediate aftermath and "the long road to healing," which also made a number of recommendations on how to improve the state's response in an emergency.

As relatives of victims poured into Blacksburg that Monday, April 16, 2007, "certain state assistance resources were not [summoned] quickly enough and arrived late," the panel found. Also, "the lack of an adequate university emergency response plan to cover the operation of an onsite, post-emergency operations center . . . and a family assistance center hampered response efforts."

The initial burden of helping the victims' families fell to the university's Division of Student Affairs, the panel found. But its assigned liaisons "had little if any experience in dealing with the aftermath of violent crime scenes and were grappling with their own emotional responses to the deaths and injuries of the students and faculty." The panel wrote that the liaisons didn't have adequate information on services for victims until two days after the shootings, when state victim assistance teams arrived.

The delay was caused, the panel wrote, "while officials from the state and the university worked through the question of who was supposed to be in charge of managing the emergency and its aftermath: the state university or the state government."

Families had trouble getting information, and the assigned public information officer "was inexperienced and overwhelmed by the event," the panel found. "A number of victim families eventually gave up hope of learning the status of their spouse, son or daughter and returned home."

Death notifications were sometimes problematic, the panel found. "One family learned their child was dead from a student," the panel wrote. "In another case, a local clergy member took it upon himself to inform a family member that their loved one was dead while they were on an elevator."

Shannon said that at the panel's hearings, victims' parents "wanted to make sure that if this sort of catastrophe occurs again, things are going to be better than they were when their children were killed."

The legislation requires all emergency operations managers to immediately contact the state Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Virginia Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund and maintain current contact information for them.

Ellis said that victim services' advocates "all expect that this bill will heighten awareness and, at the same time, require emergency response training, planning and prompt service delivery to any future emergencies. It is essential that emergency plans include the response and immediate needs of victims and their family members."

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