Thursday, August 30, 2007

Snow Closes Colleges: Why Not Shootings?

Universities close down schools all the time. They do it on "snow days." The VA Tech Report is in and you should be upset.

To say that a widespread message to the college community is difficult to broadcast, far and wide, is a mistruth. I find it incredible that there seems to be some kind of gray area in the current "school shootings prevention" debate about whether or not colleges have any control over the ebb and flow of information to their students, staff, and professors.

The Virginia Tech report was released late on the evening of August 29, 2007, as the new college and university academic year begins anew across North America.

"Warning the students, faculty and staff might have made a difference ... so the earlier and clearer the warning, the more chance an individual had of surviving," said the report.

The eight-member panel, appointed by the Virginia governor, Timothy Kaine, said the Virginia Tech police "erred" in not issuing a campus-wide alert after the first killings, urging all students and staff to be cautious.

No kidding!

"Senior university administrators, acting as the emergency policy group, failed to issue an all-campus notification about the WAJ killings until almost two hours had elapsed. University practice may have conflicted with written policies," the report said.

However, we are told by the report that a lockdown of the campus could not have stopped the mass shootings. "There does not seem to be a plausible scenario of university response to the double homicide that could have prevented a tragedy of considerable magnitude on April 16," it said. "Cho had started on a mission of fulfilling a fantasy of revenge."

Frankly that last paragraph sounds like a psychological cop-out. It reminds me of the "lone nut" posturing that occurs after a presidential assassination when we hear that "he was so insane that if he really wanted to kill the president, he was going to find a way." Useless words employed to relieve someone's guilt.

If there is a shooting in one part of the campus, in the age of Columbine, I find it unbelievable nothng is done immediately. At VA Tech, the two hours of inactivity were unexcusable. No two ways about it.

I'll say it again: "Snow days" close campuses at the drop of a hat, all the time. Email messages are sent out, information phone messages are changed, messages are written on chalkboards, printed sheets are posted on glass windowed doors, and other methods to get the word out are used. A college campus can look like a desert in 15 minutes after a "snow day" is declared. Give college students a chance to sleep in, and they will. Tell professors they can stay at home or in their offices to catch up on their research, their correspondence, and their papers to grade, and they will. Let campus security and local law enforcement officers do their jobs, and close the campus. Keep people safe.

From the beginning, this whole lame excuse that the community of 35,000 people at VA Tech was "too large" to notify has never flown true in my mind. I've worked as an instructor, associate professor, visiting professor, and fulltime research staff at a half dozen New England colleges and universities for over two decades. I've never seen a situation where a "snow day" notification wasn't almost instantly communicated throughout a wide area encompassing commuter and residential students.

Sorry, I don't buy what happened at VA Tech. The lapse in notification at VA Tech should not have happened. There is no excuse not to close down campuses, if there is any hint of a wider event occurring.

Frankly, for all educational institutions to also ignore the impact of the copycat effect on other potential school shootings is part of what must be considered. The VA Tech incidents happened in a predictable pattern, for God's sake, during the temporal window of intense predictable activity I had shared widely that would be occurring around the anniversary time of Columbine.

It does not surprise me what has been revealed in this report about the VA Tech's shooter's initimate relationship with Columbine.

In 1999, following the Columbine shootings, Seung-Hui Cho's schoolteachers observed suicidal and homicidal themes in his writings and recommended psychiatric counseling, which he alleged received. He also received medication for a short time.

Privacy laws do not apply if there is danger to others or the person who may kill or harm himself or herself. When will universities receiving new students with a history such as Cho's be notified of their incoming new members' dangerous pasts?

The panel was critical of the university for failing to pick up the various alarm signals about Cho's mental state.

"During Cho's junior year at Virginia Tech, numerous incidents occurred that were clear warnings of mental instability," the report said.

"Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these incidents, the university did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots."

Start connecting the dots, folks. Look more broadly than your own campus. I did. I predicted a "Columbine" with a bigger body count (which today we would call a "VA Tech") would take place during the week it did. Who at VA Tech was listening?

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