In the days immediately following the shootings of April 16, 2007 there was a tremendous outpouring of kindness and caring for the victims and their families. In the New Jersey town where the Pohles lived, neighbors and businesses essentially wrapped their arms around the Pohle family and watched over them. Food was sent by the local supermarket and restaurants; their daily chores were done; people came to talk and make sure they were ok; their parish priest spent hours with them. The town did anything the Pohles asked and, no doubt, the same thing was happening for all the other families directly affected.
Not long after the massacre we learned that the Virginia Tech Foundation, a separate financial entity from Virginia Tech, had established a fund to hold the donations that began to pour into the school after the tragedy. That fund was called the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund (HSMF)—the community of Virginia Tech, from its football team to its staff, faculty, students, and graduates, is known as “the Hokies.”
The families were in no shape to understand what was happening because they were still in shock; they were, nevertheless, extremely touched by the thoughtfulness and generosity of so many.
As the days after the shootings began turning into weeks, in early June of 2007, the families learned that the school had decided that of the $7 million reportedly donated to date, $3.2 million dollars would be converted into thirty-two $100,000 scholarships in memory of each person killed. (The thirty-two $100,000 scholarships were separate from the $100,000 in settlement money the families of those killed received.) There were no collaborative discussions between the Virginia Tech Foundation, school administrators, and the families relative to that decision. The families put the best interpretation on that fact, reasoning they were not consulted out of respect for the tremendous pain and horror in their lives and the fact they were focused on trying to heal. That sort of reasoning was completely understandable and appreciated because it allowed time for more important family matters to be attended to.
But, as the news of Virginia Tech’s decision to create these scholarships spread through the families, a number of them began to raise questions and objections about the one-sided decision-making that was going on. Ultimately, the school, hearing the families’ concerns, moved away from its scholarship idea.
The next major announcement concerning the Hokie Fund came through the media, not the school. In early July, less than two months after the shootings, the media reported that Mr. Kenneth Feinberg had agreed to work pro bono for the Virginia Tech administration relative to how the HSMF funds would be disbursed after the fund was closed, which the school had determined would be August 1st. Although the involvement of Mr. Feinberg meant little to the families at the time, a number of the them wondered why the administration was in such a great hurry to close the HSMF so quickly, and many of the families wondered why the fund cut off was treated the way it was—with a short deadline. At the time, the families suspected nothing nefarious, but the only “answer” they heard, once again coming through newspapers as opposed to any direct communication with them, had to do with the administration wanting to disburse the funds to the families as quickly as possible. That explanation appeared to be a very kind and thoughtful gesture on the school’s part; however, there was never a reason given as far as to why donations would no longer be accepted for the families. After August 1st, the school decided that additional donations received by the school would be deposited in Virginia Tech’s Hokie Scholarship Fund. As was the case all along, this was another decision made solely by Virginia Tech. The families were too distraught to question what was taking place and the timing behind Tech’s actions did not make any sense to them until later in the fall of 2007. After receiving criticism for their handling of the HSMF, school officials ultimately decided that the official close date for HSMF donations would be delayed until August 15, 2007.
During this same time, the families were informed that Feinberg, working under the direction of the school administration, was developing a formal protocol to be sent to “eligible” families detailing the conditions under which each claimant could apply for a disbursement from donations placed into the HSMF. The first draft of that document was delivered to families for review in mid-July. Additionally, a series of meetings with the families was conducted by Mr. Feinberg; however, the families felt their “input” had little impact and that the end result had already been determined. This was confirmed for the families when they read Feinberg’s own words he had published in the August 27, 2007 edition of the Virginia Law Review where he wrote about the HSMF disbursement process: “It is obvious, however, with fixed amounts being predetermined and no discretion being afforded the Fund Administrator in the calculation of individual awards, that requested hearings will not include any discussion of adjusting compensation…”. The disbursements and the amounts were fixed by Virginia Tech alone. In other words, these meetings were a meaningless exercise under the guise of open communication with the families and Mr. Feinberg’s hands were tied.
The following month, on August 15, 2007, just four months following the shootings, Feinberg distributed his “Final Protocol,” which documented the conditions under which impacted families had to comply in order to apply for disbursement of funds that were contained in the HSMF. That protocol was required to be notarized and returned no later than September 15, 2007 in order to participate in the program. At that time the total amount of donations in the HSMF, publicly reported by school officials, were reported to be just under $8.5 million, and would be disbursed during the month of October to approximately 80 individuals/families.
Over the course of the summer while this was going on there was also plenty being written about the HSMF in the papers, and reported in the news. By now, the families began to suspect what was happening—the school had grabbed control of the money and was determined to get the families out of the picture as quickly as possible. Virginia Tech would use the tragedy to profit the best it could. The families had next to no input on decisions regarding how the funds would be distributed, and the school would get free reign over the enormous amount of money flooding in within a scant few months following the mass killings. The families felt horrible. The money was not the issue—the issue was the school’s seizing this pot of gold and profiting from the death of its faculty and students.
By mid-summer, the press was extensively reporting the generosity of individuals and corporations, and the huge amounts of money flowing into the school. It was about this time that the families began to get anonymous and public criticism because of the money involved. The families were accused of seeking to profit from the death, or wounding, of their loved ones. The callous individuals hurtling these barbs only saw the millions coming into the HSMF, while the school administration was fully engaged with its public relations firm. The goal was to drive Tech’s communications efforts toward publicly speaking out about its concerns for the families, even though the school had pressing financial needs as well. (To be continued. I will examine the attacks on family members later as well as evidence the school’s may have siphoned off money and put it in Tech’s Capital Campaign)