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Somber homecoming

At Virginia Tech, back-to-school means a return to the scene of a devastating crime

Somber homecoming

(Key changes: A new door in Norris Hall only has a lock and no doorknob)

For Margaret Beale, returning to school this fall is different. Just last spring, the rising junior from South Boston, Va., wasn't sure she would return to Virginia Tech at all. Beale, a 21-year-old history major, walked into Hancock Hall on April 16 around the same time Cho Seung-Hui entered Norris Hall next door. Less than an hour later, Cho's vicious rampage had left 33 dead and 25 injured in the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history.

Beale took cover in a nearby parking lot after a policeman evacuated her building and told students to run. A professor drove her and another student to safety. A terrified Beale thought she wouldn't return. "School is where you are supposed to feel completely safe," she told WORLD. "And I just felt completely violated."

After an outpouring of national sympathy and local support in the days that followed, Beale changed her mind about leaving Virginia Tech for good. She says she feels safe about returning to campus this fall because she's come to a frank realization: "This could happen anywhere."

Other schools have come to that realization as well, and hundreds are revising safety procedures for the coming school year. Virginia Tech officials also updated safety measures as they prepared for some 26,000 students to begin classes on Aug. 20.

The university's major upgrade is a multi-method emergency alert system that delivers a message to students in case of an emergency. (School officials have endured criticism from students and parents who say the university should have notified the community that a gunman was on the loose last spring.)

Those who register for the program choose how they want to be notified: via phone, email, or instant message. By early July, more than 4,300 Virginia Tech students, faculty, and staff had subscribed to the system.

Virginia Tech officials may make more changes to safety procedures in late August: That's when officials say a panel convened by Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine will release a report on its investigation of the massacre.

The report's recommendations may spur legislative changes as well. At least five states, including Virginia, have already taken steps to ensure that officials send more mental-health records to the federal background-check system for firearm purchases. (The mentally unstable Cho passed through a loophole in the system when purchasing a gun in Virginia.)

Other safety upgrades may prove simple and inexpensive: Safety experts suggest installing locks on classroom doors that may be secured from the inside. The doors on classrooms in Norris Hall could only be locked from the outside with a key. (Virginia Tech student Derek O'Dell wedged his sneaker under the door when Cho left his classroom after killing four of his classmates and his German teacher. Cho returned and fired through the door, but couldn't get into the classroom again.)

As Virginia Tech officials grappled with logistics, others in the Virginia Tech community grappled with mixed emotions: The restored Norris Hall will re-open for lab and office space this fall, but no classes will meet there. The school's football season will begin with a home opener on Sept. 1, but the players' roster will share space in the team's media guide with the names of the 32 slain, and game jerseys will feature a memorial patch.

Clinical social worker Laura Gardner says returning students and faculty will bring a wide continuum of emotions as well: from those who want to put the experience behind them, to those who think it is wrong to move on.

Gardner works in a private practice with a group of Christian therapists in Blacksburg, Va., and continues to treat Virginia Tech students and faculty in the aftermath of the shooting spree. She says some struggle with survivor's guilt. Others struggle with anger and forgiveness: "Some of the memorials around here are for 33 people, and some are for 32."

Gardner's husband, Tom, who teaches English at Virginia Tech, says he's not sure what to expect on the first day of class. "I think everybody has thought about it," he told WORLD. "But I don't think anyone knows what it will be like until it's here."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.