Va. Tech Shootings: If Common Sense Had Ruled
Okay, I've read the 260 pages filed by the review panel that investigated the Virginia Tech shootings, and I understand that the university should have stepped in to help Seung Hui Cho but didn't, that Cho's parents should have alerted the college to his condition but didn't and that the state mental health system should have acted more decisively but didn't.
Here's what I don't get. In the hundreds of interviews the panel conducted, why didn't they ask all those people whose job it is to care for students one question: How would you have handled Cho if you had let your conscience, not privacy laws, guide you?
Maybe they didn't ask because we all know the answer, and it is a most discomfiting one. If the mental health professionals, police and college administrators who saw or knew about Cho's disturbing actions had acted as if their own child were involved, there might not have been any need for an investigation.
Boil down the report, cast aside the pointless second-guessing of police tactics, and you're left with this: Virginia Tech failed to intervene to help Cho because we as a society have trapped ourselves inside rules that stigmatize mental illness and paralyze our natural instinct to reach out and help someone in need.
This is no theoretical exercise in hindsight. This is a direct comparison between what some people did and what others didn't. At Virginia Tech, students who were frightened by their encounters with Cho took action. They told adults in positions of authority. The responsible adults then met and, in the words of the report, "did nothing." Why? "Lack of resources, incorrect interpretation of privacy laws and passivity," the panel concludes in its report.
Now compare what the Fairfax school system did and what Virginia Tech failed to do. In 1999, when Cho was in eighth grade, his teachers noticed, as Tech professors would later, that the youngster was thinking seriously about suicide and homicide. The boy wrote, the report says, that he "wanted to repeat Columbine."
Fairfax acted. The middle school asked Cho's parents to get him counseling. A psychiatric evaluation led to a diagnosis and treatment, which enabled Cho to perform well in school.
Again in high school, Fairfax stepped in and developed a plan for dealing with Cho's silences and other unusual behaviors. With therapy, he improved.
From there on, a lack of openness hid Cho's illness and prevented the care that might have averted disaster. No information about Cho's condition moved with him from Fairfax to Virginia Tech. The university, unlike many colleges that look at essays, recommendations and other subjective material, doesn't require much beyond test scores and grades to assess applicants. The admissions staff, the report says, "did not see the special accommodations that propped up Cho and his grades."
The culprit here is the culture of privacy that we have allowed to pervade certain areas of life, especially health and education. We have done this even as we have relied on openness to lead us into enormous change in other social realms. Does anyone doubt that it was transparency that led to deep and lasting shifts in American attitudes toward disability, race, religion and sexuality? We grew to accept people unlike ourselves because of greatly increased familiarity with and exposure to others. We came to see that we had something in common.
But in the name of protecting the mentally ill, the law stigmatizes their condition. By walling off mental illness, we prevent the power of light from reaching those who are suffering.
Privacy laws leave everyone from health workers to college administrators confused and defensive about what they may do and say. They react by doing less than they would if left to their own empathy and common sense.
"The current state of information privacy law and practice is inadequate," the report concludes. "The privacy laws need amendment and clarification."
Colleges require students to submit immunization records, yet records of emotional problems are sealed. The intent is to protect the mentally ill from discrimination in the admissions process. But that doesn't justify hiding information that can make the difference between success and failure in a student's career. "Perhaps students should be required to submit records of emotional or mental disturbance . . . after they have been admitted but before they enroll," the report says. "Maybe there really should be some form of 'permanent record.' "
"I hate this!" Cho wrote in an English paper the university did not disclose until The Post's Sari Horwitz revealed its existence. "I hate all these frauds! I hate my life. . . . This is it. . . . This is when you damn people die with me."
Lots of kids write provocative, even incendiary fiction. Nothing should discourage that. But as panel member Roger Depue, a longtime FBI profiler, says: "Just writing fantasies isn't the problem. It's the combination of disturbing writing and all the other danger signs."
Ultimate responsibility for the shootings rests squarely on Cho. But that does not absolve others of the need to act when something goes very wrong. Parents, as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said, cannot "just drop your child off on campus." Rather, they must seek out resident advisers and counselors and say, "Let me tell you about my precious child." And colleges must exhibit the same care toward young adults that parents, friends or good bosses do -- no matter how much the law may seek to separate us from our human obligations.
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