- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. — At Virginia Tech’s Drillfield, the images of students desperately scurrying across a grassy field to safety have yielded to the sights of frisbees and soccer balls zipping through the air. And the curdling screams and crack of deadly gunfire have faded, replaced by the pinging sounds of aluminum bats.

Students and faculty have willed themselves to relinquish some of the horrors they witnessed a year ago when a crazed student gunman killed 32 people and himself, transforming a campus best known for its powerhouse football and tranquil mountain setting into the site of the worst college massacre in history.

“I am very proud of the families who, like us, are going to move forward and get this behind us,” said Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie, a sophomore from Springfield, was killed.

The quest to restore normalcy is visible everywhere.

The 20 students who were wounded have returned and academically are doing as good if not better than they were before the incident, said Jay S. Poole, a Tech alum brought on as director of the Office of Recovery and Support. Ten are expected to graduate on time this year.

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    Amid the healing, a dialogue continues at campuses nationwide over how best to improve security and communication during an unfolding tragedy. The Tech episode exposed weaknesses in both areas, and the most common solution thus far has been technology aimed at ensuring students can be alerted at any time, and at any location.

    That means students at American University in Washington will soon have their own electronic beacons that function like a personal alarm system, able to alert campus police when a student doesn’t arrive at an expected location.

    At the University of Virginia, students and faculty can sign up to receive text messages on their cell phones that instantly warn of danger. And at George Washington University, all school computers are equipped with a televisionlike crawler that broadcast emergency messages.

    “Certainly campuses seem to be taking [upgraded security] seriously, but at no time should we rest on our laurels,” said Jonathan Kassa, executive director of Security on Campus Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes emergency preparedness.

    One of the first signs of potential trouble on the rolling, bucolic campus in Southwest Virginia occurred at about 7:20 a.m. when campus police responded to a report that a student had fallen out of a bed in West Ambler Johnston Hall. They arrived to find two students fatally shot.

    As police investigated the scene and college officials considered an emergency response, Seung-hui Cho, a 23-year-old English major, moved across campus to the Norris Hall engineering building.

    Between the first attack and about 9:40 p.m. when Cho entered Norris Hall, university officials prematurely and mistakenly concluded that the first killings were related to a domestic dispute, which contributed to the two-hour gap between the first shooting and the university’s notification of students and faculty, according to the report of an eight-member panel appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine to review the shootings.

    Armed with a Glock 9 mm and Walther P22 handguns, a knife, a hammer and almost 400 rounds of ammunition, Cho marched, rammed or shot his way into four classrooms inside Norris Hall, shooting people, often at point-blank range.

    Students and professors tried to barricade classroom doors with their bodies, desks and chairs. Some students played dead. Others jumped to safety from second-floor windows.

    By the time Cho turned the gun on himself, he had slaughtered 27 students and 5 faculty members and wounded 17.

    Students who survived the attack and family members of the 33 students and faculty who died talk about life now in day-to-day intervals.

    “I think without hesitation I can say that when we say nine months, it seems like nine days,” said Joe Samaha, whose daughter, Reema, a freshman from Chantilly, was killed. “When we say 10 months, it seems like 10 days. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year.”

    The killings have resulted in efforts by Virginia lawmakers and others to prevent other such attacks and help survivors and their families.

    State lawmakers have reformed Virginia’s mental health system, President Bush has signed the first major federal gun-control measure in 13 years, and Congress has told colleges to notify students within 30 minutes of a campus emergency.

    But questions remain as families like the Samahas continue to cope with their loss — including could the tragedy have been avoided, what are appropriate gun laws and what price should the state pay for each injury and life lost.

    Two days later, NBC News showed the partial contents of a package Cho mailed between the shootings — chilling pictures of him posing with guns, an 1,800-word diatribe and a video of him alluding to the coming massacre.

    The multimedia manifesto played in sharp contrast to the stories about the lives that were cut short — including that of professor Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor fatally shot as he blocked the door of his classroom so students could jump out a window.

    The dead ranged from fledgling underclassmen to well-established students and professors such as Kevin P. Granata, one of the top five biomechanics researchers in the country working on movement dynamics in cerebral palsy.

    Maxine “Max” Shelly Turner of Vienna was weeks away from graduating with a degree in chemical engineering.

    Miss Samaha was a talented dancer with a 4.0 grade point average, whose brother, Omar, a 24-year-old Tech graduate, introduced her to friends to help her begin her young, adult life.

    “This past year has been really difficult,” he said. “Every day is kind of a struggle. It is hard to explain it. It feels like every day is a funeral.”

    Among the thousands expected on campus today to attend the scheduled “Day of Remembrance” will be Mr. Kaine, a Democrat who with victims’ family members tried unsuccessfully to get state lawmakers to close the so-called gun show “loophole,” which allows people to purchase firearms from unlicensed sellers at gun shows without having to submit to background checks.

    “I really anticipated that we would be listened to a little more,” said Andrew Goddard, whose son, Colin, survived being shot four times at Norris Hall.

    However, Virginia lawmakers have budgeted an additional $43 million since the attack to improve the state’s mental health system.

    “Mental health officials probably have been screaming year on end without many people hearing them,” said Andrew Goddard, of Richmond.

    Lawmakers also have passed several related bills, including one that mandates anybody ordered by a court to get mental health treatment be added to a state police database of people barred from buying guns.

    The law clarifies that there will be no distinction in reporting based on whether a person is ordered to undergo inpatient or outpatient treatment — a hole through which Cho fell.

    Meanwhile, more than 80 “lie-ins” across the country to “protest lax U.S. gun laws,” have been scheduled today by Protest Easy Guns, an Alexandria-based group created in response to the Tech shooting.

    Virginia Tech graduate Elilta Habtu, who still has one of Cho’s bullets lodged a millimeter from her brain stem, will lead a lie-in at the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Gun rights battles started hours after the shooting.

    “If just one of those victims had been armed, this most probably would have turned out very differently,” Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said in an April 16 e-mail titled “Gun-control claims lives at Virginia Tech.”

    In recent weeks, the Tech story has centered on the state’s desire to avoid being sued by reaching a settlement with victims’ family members and the wounded.

    Under a proposal, the state would pay survivors’ medical costs, give $100,000 to the families of those killed and pay the wounded as much as $100,000, depending on the severity of their injuries. Reaction to the package has been mixed.

    Said Mr. Samaha: “You can say there is closure, but there is no such thing.”

    c Kara Rowland reported from Washington.

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