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Instant Support Group

February 2018

By Karla Hignite

The ability to bounce back from a devastating and traumatic event takes mutual aid and—as important—the recognition that human healing takes time.

On Oct. 1, 2015, an enrolled student from Umpqua Community College (UCC) in Roseburg, Ore., fatally shot an assistant professor and eight students. The mass shooting remains the deadliest in the state’s modern history.

“It happened on a Thursday,” recalls Vanessa Becker, principal of V Consulting & Associates. Becker is an organizational and crisis management consultant based in Roseburg, and, until July 2017, she served as a trustee of UCC. During the final five years of her eight-year tenure, she served as board chair, the position she held during the shooting.

That day, Becker was three hours from the college. “I had my laptop open and saw Facebook messages from students and faculty talking about an active shooter on campus. I immediately called the president’s office, but she also was away on business attending a meeting of community college presidents,” says Becker. “Instead I got her assistant, who was under her desk on lockdown.”

For half her drive back to Roseburg, Becker had no cell service. She listened to satellite radio for updates. By the time she regained service, she had nearly 50 phone and text messages from media outlets, colleagues, and college contacts. When she was finally able to connect with faculty, staff, students, and family members at the designated reunification center six miles south of campus, Becker says she was already in “trauma response mode.”

With much of her professional career spent working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and interfacing with law enforcement and first responders, Becker realized that the primary reason she herself was not shell-shocked was twofold: She had several hours during her drive to prepare for what she would encounter, and she had the skill set to know what to expect. “Most people in academia don’t show up for work prepared to encounter a horrible tragedy like this,” notes Becker. “That’s not a knock on anyone. It’s simply the truth.”

First Things First

The next morning was the first time Becker met André Le Duc, chief resilience officer and associate vice president of safety and risk services at the University of Oregon. Le Duc was part of an incident response team from the university that assembled in the hours following the shooting to come help UCC leaders address immediate concerns. Becker and Le Duc set up an off-campus emergency operations center for the college, allowing UCC’s cabinet to show up as they were able but not have the direct burden of running the center on their own.

An added complication was that the tragedy happened during the first week of classes of a new semester and new school year, says Becker. “Students were still figuring out classroom locations and trying to drop and add courses, so there was more activity than normal on campus.” Deadlines for financial aid disbursements were also due that next day, so college officials had to work with the Department of Education to request extensions.

Then there was the direct weight of the trauma that was starting to sink in with UCC administrators. Le Duc and his team also quickly realized that UCC leaders might be better served by a team who understood the specific processes and concerns related to community college administration. It was the first time he had spoken directly with the president of Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore., but he essentially asked for the college to loan out its executive management team for the coming week. Fortunately, says Le Duc, Lane’s president did not hesitate. Administrators from the sister college came and worked side by side with UCC’s executive team for close to two weeks.

The Oregon Community College Association (OCCA) also helped fill in the gaps with a secondary executive assistant to help with the sheer volume of mail, meetings, and arrangements. “We also coordinated volunteer staffing support, including a number of retired administrators who wanted to help. We rotated them in during the first two months following the incident,” notes Andrea Henderson, OCCA’s executive director.

Information Overload

The cadre of other volunteers assisting UCC in the aftermath of the shooting included multiple public information officers to help with the huge volume of inquiries, says Becker. “What many might not anticipate is the extensive requests for information on top of any regular workload. No individual would be capable of filtering and fielding the hundreds of calls, texts, and e-mails, and determining which messages should go to the president, student services, or student records.”

Another complicating factor in response efforts is not knowing when you will get back up and running, says Becker. “From an operational perspective, we basically lost any access to our campus for 48 hours because it remained an active crime scene.” Once you do gain re-entry, it becomes a series of tasks, including getting servers back online and reuniting individuals with their personal property. On the heels of the shooting, officials evacuated the entire campus, leaving upwards of 1,000 staff and student vehicles on the campus grounds, notes Becker. The UCC campus reopened four days later on that following Monday, but only for individuals connected to campus—students, faculty, and staff. Classes were delayed for another week, and the press and general public weren’t allowed on campus for 12 days, says Becker.

While she acknowledges it was fortuitous that she was well versed in the language and practice of emergency response and had established relationships with local officials and first responders, Becker knows that was the exception, not the rule. Her advice for executive leadership and board members is to develop local connections and trust, ahead of any need to seek assistance, and to make sure there is redundancy in those connections. Adding to the difficulty for UCC was the fact that the college’s interim president at the time was herself new to the area, says Becker.

Added Layer of Trauma

“It’s also important to recognize that recovery and response to violent crime is in many ways more complex than if an earthquake or other natural disaster hits,” cautions Becker. “There is an added layer of traumatic experience not only for students but for the full community of faculty and staff.”

As a result of the UCC shooting, some important system changes at the state level have been made, including better understanding of the immediate and long-term therapeutic support needed for individuals and communities, notes Becker. “One positive outcome is that we are now talking about recovery and resilience in a way that recognizes, to a much greater extent, the residual traumatic impacts to individuals, to institutions, and to the community. And this has started to change the language around such events.”

Particularly with a violent incident, trauma can require ongoing recovery resources, says Becker. Among the individuals who may need that long-term mental health and therapeutic support are first responders. In the case of UCC, one of the victims was the son of a local first responder, notes Becker. “Especially within a smaller community, there is significant likelihood that those involved in response might also be personally affected.”

Another Layer of Healing

In due time, Becker and other UCC leaders reached out to Virginia Tech for lessons their leaders could impart stemming from the university’s own tragic mass shooting incident in 2007. “One thing they warned us about was to anticipate a significant turnover of staff and faculty.” The college did, though Becker said leaders were less surprised by the number of faculty members who left, since many were long-tenured and had been nearing retirement. The college also braced for student enrollments to drop. While they did for that fall semester, by the start of the next term in January 2016,UCC actually registered an increase in enrollments, says Becker. Another positive note: The search for a permanent president produced more applicants than expected.

There were also longer-term process decisions with which to contend. “Our colleagues from Virginia Tech suggested waiting at least a year to begin the conversation about what kind of memorial we might want on campus, recognizing that everyone would have divergent opinions on the topic, including those who wouldn’t want any memorial,” says Becker. Negotiating such conversations can be tricky, as can decisions like whether to bulldoze the building where the shooting occurred, which the college did ultimately decide to do, notes Becker.

While UCC will continue to address challenges related to this particular incident, Becker believes that the trajectory of the institution’s recovery is on a sound course. From her professional experience, Becker knows that successful recovery from a traumatic event for an individual is set within the first few days and is dependent on the kind of support someone receives—which is why first response is so critical to get right, she adds. “The same is true for an institution. Understanding how trauma affects a community is something all administrators need some basic knowledge of, as well as recognizing that recovering from a violent trauma often requires another whole layer of healing.”

KARLA HIGNITE, New York City, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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