SALISBURY -- As a father, the first thing Thomas Bellavance did after learning that a 17-year-old university student had been stabbed to death in a nearby mall was to call his own daughter, also a freshman student away at school, and tell her to be careful about everything.
As president of Salisbury State University, one of the first things Bellavance did was to see that the school's crisis intervention network was in place and working.
"Our goal was to make sure no one lets up until we are certain that the students are psychologically stabilized and able to handle the situation," he said.
He didn't have to worry much about the latter concern. Within minutes after word reached the campus Monday evening that Heather Claire Miller, a biology student from outside Pittsburgh, had been stabbed repeatedly while she was inside a restroom at the Salisbury Mall, members of the school's crisis team poised themselves to handle the grief and anger they knew would sweep over the student body if the bad news grew worse.
And shortly after doctors at nearby Peninsula General Hospital pronounced Miller dead, school instructors, support staff and upperclassmen were being assembled on campus to offer counseling to as many of the 4,200 SSU students who needed it.
Homicides are rare in this lower Eastern Shore town of about 20,000 residents. And the murder of a student is unheard of, according to university officials, who note that the area's peaceful appearance impresses many who are looking for a school uncomplicated by big-city dangers.
"In a sense, that's one of our problems," said Bellavance. "This area is seen, particularly among urban kids, as safe. Obviously it is not safe. No place is safe in America."
Salisbury police have released a composite sketch of a man they believe may have followed Miller into the women's restroom and stabbed her in the chest and back during an apparent robbery attempt. They also are seeking three people -- a man, a woman and a young girl -- who may have witnessed the attack or seen the assailant.
So far, police said, reward offers totaling $11,000 have not received a response from witnesses.
In the meantime, however, school officials continue to offer counseling to campus residents upset by the murder. In small groups and individually, more than 200 people have sought counseling already, said Dean of Students Carol Williamson.
The school's crisis intervention team, a group of volunteers formed 12 years ago to offer help in cases of suicide, accidents and disasters, has set out what could be called an emotional safety net.
Students are being urged to go to classes and continue their extracurricular projects, Williamson said, but also are being told not to stifle their emotions.
The campus appears to be returning to normal, at least by outward signs. Yesterday, students chatted amiably on their way to classes. Others tossed footballs, rode skateboards or sat beneath shade trees and turned the pages of textbooks.
Yet school officials say it may be a long time before there is total recovery. So for that reason and to that end, they are continuing to offer psychological support to anyone who asks for or seems to need it.
Williamson was the first school official to learn of the attack upon Miller shortly after 6 p.m. Monday. One of three friends who had gone to the mall with Miller called Williamson from the hospital emergency room. The caller was so shaken that he couldn't remember Heather's last name, Williamson said.
A fleeting sense that the call was a prank ended when the student told her, "This is real serious."
After Williamson spread word of the stabbing -- she didn't know at the time that Miller had died -- to other school officials by phone, she --ed off to the hospital a few blocks from the university.
It was there that a doctor told her Miller was dead. Police detectives showed up at the hospital and asked to speak to Miller's three classmates individually. They told Williamson not to let the students know Miller had died because they didn't want the shock of her death to confuse her friends.
But while detectives talked with one student, the other two approached Williamson and demanded to know Miller's condition.
"I couldn't do what we had planned," Williamson said. "I had to tell them. They knew. They knew."
Back on campus, public affairs director Gains Hawkins, who had been alerted to Miller's death, was trying to find a photograph of the victim for police to distribute to news services.
Under routine circumstances, the school would not have had Miller's picture so early in the school year. But the public affairs office had a photograph that it was about to mail to Miller's hometown newspaper with a press release saying she had just completed a six-day canoe trip with other university students in Ontario's Algonquin Park.