Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

A Virginia Tech Mft Ethics Class Reflects on the Shootings at Virginia Tech

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

A Virginia Tech Mft Ethics Class Reflects on the Shootings at Virginia Tech

Article excerpt

The authors of this article include the professor and most of the students in a doctoral course on marriage and family therapy ethical and professional issues that met the semester that a disturbed student shot and killed 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty before killing himself. In this article, we reflect through short essays on issues related to the tragedy, ethics, and recovery.

Thirty three students and faculty died at Virginia Tech (VT) on April 16, 2007, and 24 others were wounded. At about 9:30 AM, Seung-Hui Cho systematically chained and locked the exit doors to Norris Hall, a VT classroom building, and walked from room to room and used two handguns to fire 174 times in 9 min at whomever he saw. Cho shot and killed himself as police broke through the exits he had chained. It started two hours earlier with his first two killings at West Ambler Hall across campus. Between then and the Norris Hall killings, Cho sent a rambling letter, photos, and video to NBC News headquarters in New York City. Since this was the largest mass murder ever on a college campus, and because of the shock of Cho's "PR package," this disaster received national and international attention for several weeks. It also turned our world at Virginia Tech upside down.

The authors of this article include the professor and most of the students enrolled in a doctoral course on ethical and professional issues in marriage and family therapy (MFT) the semester of the shootings. In this article, each of us reflects on personal, ethical, and professional issues related to the tragedy and continuing recovery. We wrote most of this article within the first month after the tragedy. While each of us reflects in a short essay on a substantive issue related to the disaster, we decided not to whitewash or edit out our own personal reactions-sometimes horror, grief, anger, shock, and confusion. Ours will not be a dispassionate account, nor should it be. Instead, our reflections represent an aesthetic form of qualitative representation, one that we hope will bring our experiences to life, connect on both intellectual and emotional levels, and invite self-reflection (Piercy & Benson, 2005). Our experiences may serve to inform family therapists when they find themselves at the interface of the personal and professional, as we did (cf., Dennis, Kunkel, Woods, & Schrodt, 2006).

The essays that follow are personal accounts and independent reflections. We did not try to speak with one voice. We respect the varied perspectives of our colleagues and believe that the range of experiences and points of view should raise important issues for discussion.


Fred P. Piercy

An Indonesian graduate student I knew was shot four times and fell on top of the husband of my son's co-worker, who was shot three times and laid still, pretending to be dead. The Indonesian's dead body on top of him probably saved his life. In so many ways, we at Virginia Tech are connected in the midst of this tragedy.

A few days after the shootings, colleague Maggie Keeling and I were asked to speak to several faculty and staff groups about how to discuss the shootings with students, the symptoms of trauma, coping strategies-basically how to slog through. I told them that getting through the tragedy wasn't like the Olympics. There are no awards for how fast you get through, and certainly no style points. Slogging is just fine. Each group had similar concerns. How much sharing is too much? What should I say about the dead or wounded students who aren't in their chairs today? What is respectful and what is invasive? Should I hug a student? Many of the issues seemed to relate to informed consent. About hugging, one woman said, "I just say, do you need a hug?" Some had little problem with giving and receiving hugs at a time like this. Others would never hug a student, even in the midst of this tragedy.

As department head, I sent out the following letter to our students and faculty:

Dear Friends,

It has been only 6 days since our collective tragedy. …

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