St. Thomas responds to Virginia Tech tragedy

St. Thomas responds to Virginia Tech tragedy

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings Monday, University of St. Thomas administrators met to review university crisis response procedures and to plan ecumenical prayer services.

“The University of St. Thomas community today joins a country in shock over the unspeakable horror that took place yesterday at Virginia Tech,” Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, said Tuesday. “I ask our community to join with me as we remember in our thoughts and prayers the victims, their families and friends, classmates and colleagues.”

Prayer services

All members of the St. Thomas community are welcome to attend an ecumenical prayer service for victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy that will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 19, outdoors on the lower quadrangle of the St. Paul campus. The service will last about 15 minutes.

The bells will toll throughout the service. The U.S. flag on the lower quadrangle will fly at half-staff until sunset on Sunday, April 22.

A second prayer service will be held at 12:30 p.m. Friday, April 20, in the chapel of the School of Law on the university’s Minneapolis campus.

How St. Thomas responds to major emergencies

St. Thomas administrators received calls this week from students and parents asking if the university has plans in place to deal with a similar crisis.

Dan Meuwissen, director of Public Safety, explained that the university has plans that outline actions and responses to emergencies that could occur on campus.

In addition, St. Thomas has a Crisis Response Team that is called upon in times of emergency. The team is made up of senior administrators who are authorized to make decisions and respond quickly.

“We have studied a number of possible emergency-related scenarios that could take place on campus,” Meuwissen said, “and we have developed responses to those scenarios. It is impossible to predict the exact nature of a campus emergency, of course, because it could come in many forms. In any case, our response will be based on our established crisis-response plans. This is a system that has been in place for a number of years and has worked well.”

Here is a brief overview of what steps would be taken once Public Safety learns of an emergency on campus:

  • Public Safety officers respond to the incident and address immediate life-safety issues.
  • Public Safety’s communications center contacts local police and/or fire departments.
  • Public Safety evacuates or secures the scene based on the situation.
  • Within minutes of being called, the St. Paul Police Department and/or Fire Department arrive on campus. The senior police or fire officer assumes responsibility of the scene. This is required.
  • Public Safety notifies and activates the St. Thomas Crisis Response Team, and calls in additional resources and contacts agencies that can render aid.
  • All life-safety issues are prioritized and responded to.
  • As soon as possible all available methods, including the voice-message phone system and e-mail, provide information about the emergency to the campus community.
  • While the emergency is being addressed in the field, the Crisis Response Team makes decisions on the support processes for the emergency.

Dealing with the tragedy

“Our students and members of this community are, to varying degrees , in the midst of dealing with this immense tragedy,” said Dr. Jeri Rockett, the university’s director of Personal Counseling and Testing. “We can all play a role in helping one another deal with these unthinkable events to facilitate healing and recovery.”

Rockett offered some thoughts and suggestions that would be helpful in dealing with the tragedy, either in a classroom or informal setting:

  • A crisis situation is one in which an individual's typical coping responses don't work or may be less effective than usual.
  • An individual's response to a crisis is very individualized. We must be careful not to judge another's response, especially if it's different from our own.
  • The thoughts, feelings, and behaviors experienced may be in response to the event at hand as well as previous (and potentially unresolved) events from the past.
  • A sense of anxiety and panic would be absolutely predictable in response to recent events.  There is so much we don't know; trying to find answers to explain such a tragedy is normal. Without available explanations, the attempt to find answers may take on a flavor of desperation and seem frantic in nature. We can help by allowing people to identify and discharge all the questions, fears, and uncertainties going through their heads. It's important to validate the concerns rather than talk people out of them. Remember, in crisis situations some people may not respond in their typical, rational way.
  • The university has excellent resources available on campus and you should feel free to use them.  These would include advisers, Campus Ministry, Personal Counseling and Testing, Student Health Services, RAs, and fellow students, faculty and staff.
  • It is often helpful for people to just be with one another during times of crises. Saying the "right" words isn't the most important thing; feeling connected to people close to you is more important.
  • Reading about the tragedy in the newspapers is preferable to dwelling on television coverage.

Members of the St. Thomas community who would like support or assistance in dealing with the tragedies are welcome to contact Campus Ministry, (651) 962-6560, or Personal Counseling, (651) 962-6780.

“We'll have staff members available throughout the rest of the week and beyond for anyone who would like to discuss any of their concerns with a trained counselor,” Rockett said.  

She also recommended a new Web site prepared by the American Psychological Association that gives advice on managing distress in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. The Web site is