Monday, April 11, 2016


I Hope This Was Useless

I did my usual panel-hopping at AACC on Monday, but one panel was so much more moving and potentially important than the others that it’s getting the entire post to itself.  I hope it will prove to be useless, but I fear that it won’t.

Rita Cavin is the former interim president of Umpqua Community College, in Oregon.  She was in office on October 1, 2015, when the mass shooting happened there.  She discussed the aftermath, and offered lessons in preparation for other colleges.

There’s typically a certain level of ambient noise at panels.  It’s not bad or distracting, but it’s there.  When she spoke, the noise was notable for its absence.  We were riveted.  I caught myself tearing up a few times, which is unusual for me; when I looked around, I noticed plenty of others doing the same.  It’s just too easy to imagine it happening anywhere.

I can’t really do justice to her presentation, though I typed as fast as I could.  Some takeaways:

Mary Spilde, the president of Lane Community College, followed with a discussion of the support that Lane and other community colleges offered in the immediate aftermath.

Anne Marie Levis spoke about her role managing crisis communications.  Her emphasis was on the importance of diverting press -- who could seem intrusive and even aggressive -- from everyone else on campus so they could get back to normal as quickly as possible.  She and the president made a strategic decision to forego any invitations to enter into the national debate about guns, on the probably-correct assumption that it would become a distraction.  Rather than allowing Umpqua to become a talking point for one side or the other, they focused entirely on getting back to work.

I don’t recall ever seeing a q-and-a period that combined as much participation with as much respect.  In response to one question, Spilde noted that it’s crucial to do drills frequently, because as soon as the “honeymoon” passes, people will start looking for someone to blame.  If you haven’t run drills in a while, you’ll become the villain.  The panel was divided on whether to do drills when students are present.  On one side, it would be the most thorough and accurate preparation.  On the other, it could be traumatizing in itself.  (Cavin mentioned that the students who had experience with guns were the first to recognize the sounds of gunshots as gunshots.  They were the first to urge people to take cover.  A point as subtle as that one suggests that steering clear of the political debate was the right call.)

Cavin noted, too, that it’s easy to forget to help the helpers.  She noted that the leaders of student government stepped up in amazing ways, but that their needs for counseling weren’t immediately recognized.  

In my perfect world, we wouldn’t need to know any of this.  But we might, and probably without warning.  My thanks to Rita Cavin, Mary Spilde, and Anne Marie Levis for sharing some of the hardest-won wisdom I’ve heard.

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