After the massacre at Virginia Tech last week I spent several days thinking about what makes a person turn into such a monster. I wondered how a human being — even one with as troubled a past as Seung-Hui Cho — could do such horrendous things. But after days of contemplation and prayer, I realized that since the beginning of time evil has roamed our land. There will always be dangerous people out there. So the question arises: What do we do about it?
Sadly the administration at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia did nothing. Like just about every other college in America, the leaders of Virginia Tech were obsessed with the image of their school. Prestige and reputation ruled every decision. Honors, enrollment, and money would continue to flow in if everything else was kept quiet. This is not a conspiracy theory or wild rant. This is the cold hard truth. Virginia Tech officials knew about Cho’s behavior prior to the horrendous killings yet refused to act.
English Literature professor Nikki Giovanni had Cho in her class and saw his meanness and anger and demanded that if he were not removed from her class, she would resign. Lucinda Roy, then the department chair-person, removed Cho from the class and taught him one on one. Roy recalled Cho exhibited an obvious rage, and was secretly taking photographs of other students while holding the camera under his desk. Besides this, his writings were so disturbing that she went to the police and university administrators for help. Yet the administration did nothing.
This was not the first time the administration heard complaints about Cho. In November 2005 local and campus police were notified by a student complaining that Cho was stalking her. The university’s Office of Judicial Affairs handled the complaint and obviously (the outcome of that situation is confidential) things remained the same. Because a month later another woman student complained to campus authorities about unwanted messages she was receiving from Cho, the campus police spoke to him and then released him on the agreement that he meet with Access Services, an independent mental health facility in Blacksburg. Furthermore, Cho’s roommates reported him to campus police as being suicidal and displaying “crazy” behavior. Again, nothing was done.
The Virginia Tech administration needed to remove Cho from campus long ago, yet they failed to act. They were more concerned with the image of their school than the safety of their students. Which school is next because their administration refuses to secure the campus because it may not look good or may cost them a few dollars? Whose children are in danger now because school officials are more concerned with their public relations department than their police department? Virginia Tech is not the only school to sweep crimes and complaints under the rug. Colleges all over the country continually downplay the violence that occurs on their campuses. Whether they underreport, misreport, or do not report the crimes, their official crime logs are usually unreliable and invalid. This makes it difficult for parents to know what their children are potentially getting into. Without objective and transparent crime reporting on college campuses, nobody will ever know what schools are safe and which ones are not. Until proper legislation is passed and school officials begin to take crime and violence on their campuses seriously, we will see more and more incidents like last week’s massacre.
Atlanta lawyer Amanda Farahany was hired several years ago by a student at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia who was allegedly raped on campus but could not get the police to prosecute because the school would not cooperate and turn over incident reports and other findings. Farahany discovered firsthand while representing this student that statistics provided in the campus crime log didn’t match the school’s crime reports. “We know that one in four college women are a victim of sexual assault. When universities are reporting zero rapes on campus, we know that just isn’t possible,” Farahany said, citing several surveys, including a 1991 study of 7,000 college students by researchers Mary Koss and Mary Harvey. The point is that we have some work to do.
Besides improved legislation, more transparency by school administrations, and better campus security, we need teachers and students to do their part as well. And I mean physically. During Cho’s killing spree, there had to have been moments when one or many could have charged Cho and stopped the shooting. Students and teachers (and really, all of us) need to defend themselves and protect the lives of those around them during future massacres like these. During the 9/11 attacks we saw heroic acts by men and woman in the air and in New York and Washington, DC. I just wish we had seen more of that in Virginia last week. And I expect next time we will. In fact I think we should demand it of each other.