School District at Center of Virginia Tech Memorial Controversy

It was designed to be an act of remembrance. But for one of Virginia's largest school districts, "Hokie Hope" has turned into a public-relations nightmare after a leaked memo said schools would not require student participation.

Parents were voicing anger Thursday after learning the 58,000-student Chesterfield County school district would discourage participation in "Hokie Hope" day on Friday, according to local media reports. Virginia Tech alumni organized the event, which calls for those across the country to wear orange and maroon in honor of the 32 students and faculty slain by Cho Seung-Hui on the school's campus on Monday.

But the school district says the anger stems from a big misunderstanding.

"It's been misinterpreted," Debra Marlow, the Chesterfield County Public Schools director of community relations, told "So today in the best way that we can, we've rescinded any thoughts that we're not supportive of the governor."

The trouble began Wednesday afternoon, when Marlow sent an e-mail to the principals of the district's 60 schools clarifying the district's plan for "Hokie Hope."

Individual students, the e-mail said, would be allowed to wear the Tech colors, but it would not be a requirement for all students. If principals had already scheduled activities, they could go on as planned.

"We have procedures that we use in crisis planning and crisis management and traditionally our focus during a crisis is to try to keep young people in a routine and focused on school and instruction," Marlow said. "It's an attempt to stay as normal as we can."

That evening, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine declared Friday a day of mourning. And by then, the Chesterfield e-mail had spread to teachers and some parents, prompting a furor that Marlow attributes to emotions running high.

"Everywhere people are emotional," Marlow said. "All the children in our community who go to Tech are at home now and their parents are coping with their distress and how distraught they are."

All the schools in the district will now participate in a moment of silence at noon Friday.

"With the many connections our schools, students and staff have to Virginia Tech, we are saddened by Monday's news," Superintendent Marcus J. Newsome said in a statement. "We join together with other educational institutions to offer our thoughts and support to the Blacksburg community."

Marlow said the e-mail was an ill-conceived attempt to make sure school activities were inclusive, not exclusive to students. One of the concerns, she said, was that some students in the district may not own Virginia Tech clothing.

"We never said they couldn’t wear colors," she said. "Any student who wishes to may."

One of the 32 people gunned down Monday on Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus was a graduate of the Chesterfield County Public School system.

Matthew G. Gwaltney graduated from Thomas Dale High School in 2001, Marlow said. A candlelight vigil is planned for Friday night in his honor and the family visitation will be held Sunday at the school.

"We're just doing everything we can to try and inform the public that it was never our intent and if it was misconstrued or misunderstood we're very sorry," Marlow said.