The Virginia Tech Tragedy: Blame vs. Accountability

There is no shortage of commentary in the media and blogosphere saying, in effect, Let’s not blame anyone but the killer for the massacre at Virginia Tech yesterday morning. This commentary often decries the tendency to look for scapegoats when something horrible happens. The mature attitude is supposed to be Life is unfair. There are crazy people out there. You can’t do anything about them. The traumatized students who are criticizing the administration are understandably upset. But they’re wrong. Tsk Tsk.

Up to a point, of course I agree. Perfect safety, perfect security, does not exist.

But isn’t the opposite tendency just as telling about our culture? Why the rapid closing of ranks around university and police officials? To me, that is just as premature, and just as sad a reflection on our culture as the rush to assign blame or to exploit the issue for political gain.

Instead of a scapegoat, the students at VT see an emperor with no clothes.

“I don’t know why they let people stay in classrooms,” Sean Glennon, a junior from Centreville and the quarterback on the Hokies football team, said Monday. “A lot of people are angry that campus wasn’t evacuated a little earlier.”

There was a double-homicide on campus. Based on statements made by officials yesterday, the U. decided to treat it as a “domestic dispute” with no possible further ramifications, even though the killer was still at large, still armed, and had killed at least one person who was not a party to the alleged love triangle that drove this student over the edge.

The university also decided not to take advantage of the instantaneous communications available to them for more than two hours. If for no other reason than rumor control, I would have advised them to move much more quickly.

Should they have foreseen 31 more murders? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have reacted differently. If they had, would lives have been saved? No one can say that for sure. But officials’ assumption that the crisis was over, despite awareness of a killer still in the wind, seems like muddled and misguided thinking. The traumatized students as well as the victims’ survivors, deserve to understand what went into that thinking.

One term I haven’t seen used anywhere regarding the university’s responsibility: ‘In loco parentis.’ It’s a concept dating back to British common law. We parents send our students to school for several hours each day, or for months at a time if the child goes off to college. We do this in the belief that the university will act as a parent would act. That’s why campuses can have rules that go beyond state or federal law. For example, in Virginia, it’s legal to carry a firearm. But not at Virginia Tech. The university’s administration has decided it needs extra protection to make sure its students are safe. Schools are allowed to search lockers without a search warrant, to censor free speech in the campus newspaper, to prohibit alcohol even for those of legal drinking age.

Much of the case law on ‘in loco parentis’ seems to be focused on whether it is okay to invade students’ constitutional rights (generally the answer is yes.) But isn’t the spirit behind the concept a need for increased vigilance to protect the students, since the parents aren’t there to provide it?

Would a parent have been so slow in notifying their own kids about a killer on the loose in their immediate midst? Just to be safe, and even if it was inconvenient or disruptive, wouldn’t a parent have taken the addition step of telling the child to return home or find a secure location, at least until the situation was under control?

Don’t blame me for the problems of the world is not, to me, an acceptable position for a university president, or any other top school official.

Here’s another thing that bugged me. From the Washington Post, emphasis mine:

Lucinda Roy, an English professor who taught a creative writing class that Cho attended, told CNN that she grew so concerned by some of his writings in the fall of 2005 that she went to university officials to see if anything could be done. She said authorities told her there was nothing they could do because the writings, while disturbing, did not point to an immediate threat and because they did not want to violate Cho’s free speech rights. Roy told the network that she decided to teach him one-on-one for a semester and urged him to get counseling.

“Several of us became concerned,” she said. “I contacted some people to try to get some help for him because I was deeply concerned myself.” She declined to give details of the troubling passages in his written work, citing a request by investigators.

This seems deeply, deeply confused. His “free speech rights” were not the issue. It’s almost absurd. Professor Roy was not talking about censoring Cho, or locking him up for what he said. She was concerned about his well-being and the safety of others.

Did no one at VT think to notify Cho’s parents? They would have been completely within their rights to send the writing samples to the parents and to urge them to get their child help.

Protecting free speech does not equate to being completely numb to the content of the speech. Not all speech is equal. Speech sometimes precedes action — action that could be dangerous and violent. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment to use it as a barrier against acting to pursue possible criminal activity.

Here, from the LA Times, is a description of Cho’s writing, and a fellow student’s reaction following the murders:

“His writing, the plays, were really morbid and grotesque,” (Stephanie) Derry said.

“I remember one of them very well. It was about a son who hated his stepfather. In the play the boy threw a chainsaw around, and hammers at him. But the play ended with the boy violently suffocating the father with a Rice Krispy treat,” she said.

“When I got the call it was Cho who had done this, I started crying, bawling,” Derry said. “I kept having to tell myself there is no way we could have known this was coming. I was just so frustrated that we saw all the signs, but never thought this could happen.

What Derry is describing is an outgrowth of our culture. Clearly, many of Cho’s fellow students and teachers had a visceral reaction to his writing, and sensed danger. And then suppressed these feelings, believing that to do otherwise would be considered judgmental.

Blame is cheap. There is a lot of blaming going on around this incident that is very cheap. But accountability is precious. The university officials, professors and the police need to be held to account for the decisions they made, decisions they made in loco parentis, beginning with the decision not to react to the disturbing writings. I just want them to explain why they did what they did, not hide behind platitudes. Where their thinking was unsound, I want to highlight it so others can learn from it. Don’t let the leadership off the hook so easily.

3 thoughts on “The Virginia Tech Tragedy: Blame vs. Accountability

  1. I really appreciate what you had to say about First Amendment rights. It’s completely true that these rights do not cover the volatile rantings of a demented young man. Censorship and/or punishment had nothing to do with it.

  2. I think that the administration at VT is trying to get a free pass on this, too. The one and only response of those in charge , in a time immediately following a crisis such as at VT, is to say “we will review how we responded and communicated and make improvements where necessary” or some sincere variation thereof. And then, DO IT.

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