Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Campus (In)Security

Sacred halls became scared halls. Hallowed walls became hollow walls.

The massacre at Virginia Tech highlights the problem of how schools keep students safe on campuses across the nation. Virginia Tech appeared to do everything right: they have a campus police force, they have crisis intervention programs, their professors and students file complaints about other students as necessary. Campus police records showed there were two complaints filed against the Seung Cho in late 2005. The police first characterized Cho's behavior as "annoying" but not harassing. Cho then sent apparently harassing instant messages to a second student, who subsequently filed a complaint. That complaint led to Cho being involuntarily committed to a mental hospital under a suicide watch. Still, this kid didn't come up on the university's radar. Cho's erratic behavior and violence-themed schoolwork alarmed two professors enough to report him to school administration. University counseling knew about this disturbed student, but neither they nor campus police did anything to remove him from campus, stating that they were helpless until Cho actually threatened or hurt someone. Cho also sent alarming photographs, video and writings to NBC News, but no one was able to stop him. Unbelievable.

Here was a kid who exhibited every single classic warning sign of potential violent behavior, whose actions were documented in some fashion by university administration, by campus police and by the local mental health community, and no one stopped him. This was not like Columbine, where the students' violent proclivities were virtually unknown. Cho bought not one but two handguns in the month prior to the shootings, yet this did not raise any kind of red flag with state or federal enforcement agencies. His firearms applications had to show that he lived on-campus at a state university. Law enforcement should have notified the university that a student had recently purchased firearms.

Virginia Tech was feckless in its management of the student, his problems, and the imminent crisis. The school's ombudsman should have seen the complaints from the professors and students, the reports from university counseling, and the notice of involuntary commitment from the mental hospital; then, Virginia Tech should have removed Cho from campus. The university should have notified Cho's parents that their son was a danger to himself and to his community, and the parents should have had the son committed. The parents and their community should have pressured Cho to voluntarily commit himself and get the help he desperately needed.

By the way, where were his parents in all of this? Why didn't they pull their kid out of school or pressure him into a treatment program? The parents must have known their son was having problems at school; the university should have notified them early on. If one of your children was causing a problem at school, wouldn't you want to know about it? Wouldn't you do something about it? I certainly would.

Mark my words: the victims' families will file a flurry of lawsuits against the university for negligent supervision, failure to provide adequate security, and wrongful death. The university is liable. This is going to cost Virginia Tech millions, not to mention the damage to its reputation.

Finally, back to the issue I first raised. How do we keep kids safe at school? Should schools build walls around their campuses and security-screen everyone who passes through the gate? That might work on urban and suburban campuses, but it seems out-of-place on rural campuses. The answer is far more subtle: schools -- primary, secondary and university -- should have people watching all the time, using security cameras, using clothed security officers, using civilian task forces. Schools should have ombudsmen who collect campus and community reports about problem students, and the ombudsmen should dismiss them from campus. Law enforcement agencies should report to universities firearms purchases by their students -- why does a college student need a handgun? two handguns? I despise most civilian and recreational use of weapons, so gun control laws should be more restrictive. Psychiatric commitments should last longer than 72 hours, and patients should be released into treatment facilities instead of back into the community. Parents need to know what's going on in their children's lives; they need to stay in touch regularly with their college students and be advised when there is a problem.

Because if it were my kid, I would want to know. And, I would want to help him before he hurt himself or someone else.


Doc Thelma said...

Believe me, as a college professor, this all strikes home for me. But the facts are now that neither a professor or a college official can communicate anything to a parent of a student over 18 without their written permission, or unless the parents show us proof that the student is their tax dependent. Without those, I can confirm whether the kid is enrolled in my course; I cannot give information about grades, attendence or behavior on campus and I open myself and the school up to a lawsuit if I do.

We once had an irate, red-faced father grab the college marshall during the graduation procession, demanding to know why he hadn't received a ticket and why his daughter wasn't listed on the program. In reality, she had flunked two required classes; she had lied through her teeth and told him she had passes and blamed a mistake in the registrar. Dad made screaming calls to the Dean for nearly two years, threatening to sue, and all the Dean could legally tell him was that she had not met the requirements for graduation. Finally, Dad was told to go ahead and sue, because if he did, the records would then become evidence and show the school entirely in the right. Fortunately, the daughter eventually 'fessed up and Dad apologized to the Dean.

Privacy regarding mental health issues, of course, is even more heavily guarded. And one of our fellow bloggers has just shown us how hard it is to get inpatient treatment for an underage kid, even when all the doctors say he needs it. It's even harder for a legal adult who can refuse treatment for himself.

Who knows whether Cho listed his campus address or his parents' home as his address on the gun order? Most college student's legal address (on their ID, etc. is the parent's home) so I doubt there was anything indicating he lived on campus. Even if there was, again with the privacy laws. The dealer would no more inform the college of a gun purchase than they would inform an adult's subdivision or place of business.

As for Cho's parents, I have heard they have limited English skills. I also heard that one or both of them have been hospitalized in the aftermath of the shooting, but those are just rumors.

As for parents in general, I wish all were like you. Frequently, I'm told, when college staff is concerned about troubled students and advises the parents to bring them home, the parents say they don't want them back! And, if they are over 18 and do something so egregious to warrent expulsion, we can remove them from campus (after multiple hearings and appeals that may take a semester or more) but we can't make them go anywhere. If they have enough money or a friend's place to crash in, they can do as they please.

And I will maintain, despite my support for the second amendment, that there is no need for anyone outside of the military or law enforcment to have a gun that sprays the number of bullets this kid fired. Unless you are recreationally hunting herds of T. rex or protecting your family from invading Huns, you don't need that type of firepower. No one does.

Sadly, I think the reality is there are few measures that can stop the "lone nut mass killer" types like Cho who plan these things out far in advance. Colleges have gotten better (though could still improve) at getting help for students who are in danger of harming themselves (eating disorders, depression, etc.) The supreme irony is, if Va. Tech hadn't so successfully intervened in 2005, when Cho was apparently suicidal; there would be 32 people alive today.

I didn't mean to write a book; I think I'll repost this on my blog.

Robin said...

As a parent of a college student, I can tell you that parents, no matter how much they want to be involved in their college child's life, are not allowed any information without permission from the child if they're 18 or over. Even though we pay his tuition, we can't see his grades unless he shows them to us.

I don't understand the way things work these days. Or rather, don't work. I agree with you about some of these things that ought to be in place to prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring.