School Climate & Safety

Virginia District Hit Hard by Graduate’s Killing Spree

By Alyson Klein — April 20, 2007 5 min read
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When Tim Thomas took over as the principal of Westfield High School here this school year, he probably didn’t envision that fielding questions from the national media would be part of the job description.

But this week, Mr. Thomas, 41, stood in front of television cameras and soberly explained that teachers and students were trying to get back to their normal routine of classes and extracurricular activities, while grieving the deaths of two recent alumni, killed at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on April 16 by Cho Seung-Hui, another graduate of the school.

“Since Monday, we have continued to provide a world-class education, and our students have been their usual excellent selves,” Mr. Thomas said April 18, reading from a prepared statement. “Our focus at Westfield High School for the next few days will be to maintain the integrity of the school day, while simultaneously meeting the emotional needs of our students, especially those who are experiencing extreme difficulty in dealing with our loss.”

Though Mr. Thomas said he would not take questions, reporters shouted some at him anyway. “What was he like?” asked one, referring to Mr. Cho. At the time Mr. Cho graduated, Mr. Thomas, a former Spanish teacher, was an assistant principal at Westfield.

Along with the media, officials across Virginia’s 164,000-student Fairfax County school district—but especially at Westfield High—have had to cope with students’ grief and shaken sense of safety, as well as concerns about a possible backlash against students’ who share Mr. Cho’s Asian heritage.

In all, five graduates of the Fairfax County public schools were slain in the Virginia Tech shootings, not including the gunman, who took his own life.

Still, the scene at dismissal time at Westfield appeared relatively typical two days after the slayings, except for the news vans lined up across the street. The afternoon announcements mentioned an upcoming meeting of the boys’ basketball team. Students, including some wearing Virginia Tech sweatshirts, boarded school buses or got into their parents’ waiting cars.

Three boulders along the parking lot offered the clearest evidence that Westfield High School had close links to a tragedy that had stunned the nation. Two served as makeshift memorials for shooting victims Erin Peterson and Reema Samaha, both Virginia Tech students and 2006 graduates of Westfield High. Each girl’s name was written on one of the boulders, in green and yellow.

The rocks were strewn with pictures, flowers, candles, and messages from students and community members. “Dance like no one’s watching,” read one note in memory of Ms. Samaha, who had participated in Westfield’s theater program.

“E-baby, you put so many smiles on my face,” read a message for Ms. Peterson, who was a captain of the girls’ basketball team. The third stone was painted in the Virginia Tech colors of red and orange and bore the university’s initials, V.T.

The Fairfax County district fielded requests from more than 100 news outlets this week, from as far away as South Korea, where Mr. Cho, a 2003 Westfield graduate, was born. The sheer volume of phone calls and e-mails overwhelmed the community-relations office, which deals with reporters.

Paul Regnier, a district spokesman, said the office was operating in “crisis mode,” drawing on experiences from other recent events that brought national media attention to the district, such as the Washington-area sniper shootings in October 2002. To help cope with the increased demands, public relations officials from other branches of county government temporarily switched over to the schools’ communications team.

Reporters Excluded

Online Resources

Review Warning Signs of Youth Violence, a comprehensive feature on the topic posted by the American Psychological Association.

An interactive map from CBSNews.com provides a detailed timeline and description of U.S. school shootings since 1997.

The Poynter Institute offers specific resources and news sources on school shootings from 1997-2007.

The White House has posted resources and information from the Conference on School Safety, convened by President Bush in October 2006 following the shootings at an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa.

The online resource, Keep Schools Safe, provides resources for school administrators, parents, and students on the issues of school safety and security.

The district also instructed teachers, principals, and students to avoid speaking to reporters on school grounds. Extra security guards patrolled Westfield High’s campus to make sure reporters didn’t enter the building or talk to students. Reporters were barred from covering the school’s athletic events on April 18 because district officials were worried they would use the opportunity to ask students and others about the shootings.

Although such tactics may frustrate journalists, the district may be right to shield students and teachers, said Rich Bagin, the executive director of the National School Public Relations Association, based in Rockville, Md. “It’s pretty common that they try to protect the kids and staff from all those kinds of interruptions [in such situations],” Mr. Bagin said. The idea is to allow students to grieve while keeping the focus on instruction, he said.

To help students cope, the district sent five extra school counselors to Westfield High the day after the shootings.

And school staff members in other parts of the district, a mostly affluent suburban area some 20 miles outside Washington, also initiated discussions about the shootings. A school counselor at another county school, who asked to remain anonymous, said officials set aside class time last week to reassure students that they were safe at school, and to discuss the shootings.

Since the incident, parents of students of Asian descent had reported negative comments directed at their children, according to a district e-mail sent this week to principals. Students of Asian birth or heritage make up about 18 percent of the district’s enrollment.

The e-mail urged principals to instruct staff members to address the issue of a potential backlash against Asian-American students. “While we cannot control every student’s remarks, it is important to be sensitive to this concern,” the e-mail read in part. “A reminder to all students of the need to respect the diversity among us would be appropriate, as well as the negative impact of stereotyping students based on race, ethnicity, and national origin.”

The e-mail included a link to suggestions from the National Association of School Psychologists, based in Bethesda, Md., on dealing with the repercussions of violent incidents.

Mary Rizzo, who teaches English-language learners at Fairfax County’s Oakton High School, said she discussed the issue in class, after hearing concerns from some Asian students. “The Korean students are feeling very nervous,” she said. One told her his parents had instructed him not to leave the house outside school hours, she said.

Ms. Rizzo said she led a discussion about racial perceptions, reminding students that many Arab-Americans felt uncomfortable after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She explained that Mr. Cho’s depression—not his Korean heritage—likely served as a catalyst for the shootings. “Mental illness really knows no racial bounds,” she said she told the students.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as Virginia District Hit Hard by Graduate’s Killing Spree

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