Nonstop demands test UCC leaders
“We all squared our shoulders and said, ‘Let’s do this.’” — Vanessa Becker
The events of Oct. 1, 2015, spun Umpqua Community College into a whirlwind that demanded much more of college leadership than anyone ever would have anticipated. Multiple, competing demands came nonstop: evacuating the campus, coordinating with law enforcement, supporting victims and the campus population, handling the voracious media, and making plans for the college reopening.
UCC’s two top leaders weren’t even in Roseburg on the morning of the shootings. Rita Cavin, the college’s interim president, was on her way to Grants Pass for a meeting when her phones, both work and personal, started ringing nonstop. “I pulled over and, as soon as I saw the first message, I called the college, turned on the radio, then started back,” she remembered. “As I approached the campus, the ambulances were going the other direction.”
Vanessa Becker, chair of UCC’s board of trustees, was more than three hours away in Brookings on business when she saw notices on Facebook. One of her first calls was to UCC’s director of community relations, Lee Salter, in her Snyder Hall office. Salter, who was taking shelter under her desk, told Becker she thought the shooting had stopped in the classroom next door. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Becker told her.
Upon Cavin’s return to Roseburg, she went through police barricades to meet with the college’s head of security, who was organizing buses for evacuating the campus. That afternoon, Cavin and Becker met at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, which was serving as a reunification center for students and families.
Becker immediately went into what she calls “director mode,” finding out what services were available, what was happening, how to support people right away. She helped arrange for the University of Oregon crisis team to come to Roseburg through a Department of Justice contact. She called mental-health contacts to mobilize a response, and she helped set up support for families and staff at the fairgrounds.
Media demands immediately became a concern. Within minutes of the first reports, both Cavin and Becker were besieged by calls from national media. “We were still evacuating, and the whole time my phone was ringing with calls. MSNBC, CNN, Fox — the phone just kept ringing,” Cavin said.
“The Wolf Blitzer show and CNN were calling me within 25 minutes of it happening,” Becker said. “I don’t even know how they got my cell phone number.”
Cavin figures she spoke at three press conferences that first night, with Becker by her side. She also talked at an emotional candlelight vigil at Stewart Park attended by hundreds.
Friday, Oct. 2, 2015When Cavin got home, she took off her comfortable turquoise jacket and threw it in the trash. “I didn’t want to see it again,” she said. “I was on all those newscasts, people had cried on it all day. I found out later that quite a few women had done that. We didn’t give them to Goodwill, we just threw them out.”
The next day turned into a blur. Outside help from the Oregon Community College Association and the University of Oregon began to arrive. Cavin started the day with interviews at 8 a.m. The college cabinet met at 9 a.m. to sort through everything that needed to be done. Becker arrived at the meeting thinking her only job was to bring doughnuts, which she forgot. Instead, she learned that she was tapped to represent the college at the afternoon press conference where details of the incident were to be released, including the names of the deceased.
The college leadership spent the day at planning meetings, the law enforcement command center, the UCC campus, and media events. One meeting included Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, Congressman Peter De Fazio and the three Douglas County commissioners. It was an overwhelming 24 hours, marked by a lack of sleep, little food, and grief.
Becker remembers the mood at the press conference as local leaders prepared to meet the media. “That was really rough. It was the first time we had seen the names of the nine victims, and the energy in the room quickly evaporated,” she said. “We all stood up, squared our shoulders and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
They walked into what Becker describes as a “crazy, insane media circus.”
“I’ve done a lot of media stuff but not like that,” she said. “All I could think was, please, don’t puke.”
When it was her turn, Becker, who held her composure, mentioned the victims and talked about when the campus would reopen.
Over the next few days, the UCC management team met several times daily for up to three hours each time, assigning tasks, leaving to take action, and then coming back a few hours later to build a new list. Cavin began giving eulogies at funerals, and the management team worked out the details for a soft opening of the college on Monday, Oct. 4. The campus buildings would open for students and staff to gather, talk and grieve. Classes would resume a week later.
“Health care, law enforcement, fire — their mission is to respond to crisis,” Becker said. “They have training and staff to deal with mass casualty situations, even though it is stressful for them.” Academics don’t have that training, she added. It’s not their mission.
“They organize and speak, and those skills are the first thing to go when you experience trauma,” she said, which made the outside support that much more important. “The college response was aided immeasurably with help from the community and from nonlocal resources, and support staff from other community colleges.”
Leaders: Lessons Learned
Coordinate with law enforcement: We were able to keep media off campus for over a week. That was a success, a big win. The campus would normally have been released to us sooner, but we asked law enforcement to stay at the end of the road until we figured out how to reopen campus. — Vanessa Becker
Ask for help: A community college executive team from Lane Community College [70 miles away] worked side-by-side with our UCC team for the first few days. There were rotating executives from other colleges as well for several weeks. — Rita Cavin
Share the lessons: I’ve received so many requests for interviews and lessons learned. There is a tendency to say no, we don’t want this event to define us. But we are part of a small but growing group of communities that have experienced this. We need to share what we’ve learned — not just to prevent it from happening, but to have a more robust response. — Vanessa Becker
Enable offsite access to your website: The college’s communications response could have been better. Our website went down — it was located in the office next to the Snyder Hall classroom where the shootings occurred, and we couldn’t get into the office. We had backups, but all the passwords were in that office. The double backups were on cell phones, which were in people’s offices. — Vanessa Becker
Know when to step back: Our first responders did an amazing job. Two weeks later, they were exhausted. They either got sick or said, “I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.” You need to step up and step back. Support each other through it. — Vanessa Becker
Give up being perfect: There will always be someone who doesn’t like what you decide. Our joke was that the only noncontroversial thing we did was approve the comfort dogs to come on campus. For every other decision, someone liked or didn’t like it. You just give up trying to be perfect. — Rita Cavin