At Va. Tech, Near Silence For A Student's Anguished Cry
All William Kim has left of his only son is a new kind of life after death: Daniel's electronic remains. A cellphone with its address book -- the father calls each number on the list, hoping to connect to someone who knows something. An instant-messaging account. Online game rooms, filled with Daniel's fellow World of Warcraft players.
So many people, so much life, yet Daniel Kim is dead, perhaps because somewhere in the blizzard of data that saturates our lives, his cries for help went unheard, unminded.
After April, after the shootings at Virginia Tech, this sort of thing should not happen anymore. So everyone thought. But Dan Kim, a 21-year-old Virginia Tech senior from Reston, shot himself in the head last month while he sat in his car in a Target parking lot in Christiansburg, Va. The suicide came after at least one and possibly two students at other colleges had contacted Virginia Tech to say their friend had bought a gun and was talking about killing himself.
"Daniel has been acting very suicidal recently, purchasing a $200 pistol and claiming he'll go through with it," wrote Shaun Pribush, a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., in an e-mail to Virginia Tech's health center. "We are very concerned for his safety. . . . please forward this to who can give him the best care."
In addition to Pribush, a student at another Virginia college tells me he called Tech's switchboard in October seeking help for Daniel. A university operator's log shows that a man called expressing concern about a friend, but when the operator offered to transfer the call to the health center, the caller declined. Both Pribush and the other student knew Daniel from online games and IM-ing but had never met him face to face.
Despite promises after the April shootings that the college would be more responsive to warning signs, despite written protocols requiring that any student who makes "any gesture or reference to suicide . . . must be seen by the psychologist on call," no one from Tech's counseling center contacted Daniel.
Instead, the university referred the matter to police, who drove by his off-campus apartment, asked if he was okay and reported back that Daniel said he was fine.
"At that point, that was it," says Virginia Tech's associate vice president, Larry Hincker. "Daniel kind of blew off the Blacksburg police. This is an adult who lives off campus, so it's under the police jurisdiction."
Counselors would have intervened if police had said Daniel was a danger to himself or others, says Dean of Students Tom Brown.
Hincker says Kim "was not on the radar screen," and no faculty member or roommate had expressed concern about him.
Indeed, no adult seemed to notice that the math major had stopped attending classes in September. "Even learning one more thing like that would have changed things for us," Brown says.
After Pribush's e-mail was received by the university's Care Team -- counselors and administrators who meet weekly to discuss troubled students -- no one made any effort to get in touch with his parents.
"I know one thing," William Kim tells me as we sit in the tiny back office at the convenience store he owns in the District's Palisades neighborhood. "I never had a chance to save my son. If the school isn't going to do anything, at least let me try. If they had just called me, everybody would drop everything, close the store and go down there, 150 miles an hour. When you talk to your friends like this, this is a cry: 'Help me.' Any psychologist knows that. Danny waited five weeks after the e-mail. That's what's killing me. Nobody gave me the chance."
Dean Brown says that among the many recommendations that have come out of last spring's tragedy, several would lower the barriers to contacting parents when a student appears to be in trouble. But those ideas remain just proposals, he said.
"We really need to have written protocols as a foundation to stand on because you can get into all kinds of legal and privacy issues," says Brown. If the police check "had indicated any cause for concern, we would have contacted the family."
Some schools aren't waiting for legal clearance. At Cornell University, the number of suicides has dropped considerably in the six years since administrators reinterpreted privacy laws and started notifying parents about their children's troubles even without students' permission. Cornell also asks professors to report students who don't attend class regularly or seem troubled.
There is a steady stream of customers at the Kims' Mac Market -- Daniel's parents are there from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week -- but there are also now many hours when they are alone with their memories and questions. What should the university have done? What could they have done?
As William sits in his office combing through Daniel's IM chats, his wife, Elizabeth, can be seen and heard on the video screen that hangs over Kim's desk. She cries out, "Oh, Daniel, Daniel," as her sobs echo over the speaker that monitors transactions at the front counter.
After Seung Hui Cho -- another Korean American student from Northern Virginia -- killed 32 people and himself, Danny's parents asked their son to come home. During the visit, Daniel seemed frightened but otherwise himself. But one day, he came home from getting a haircut and told his father, "I look just like him, the shooter."
"Oh, no, Dan, you don't look like him at all," his father replied.
"And he said, 'Yes, when they see me, they'll see him. In their eyes, I look like him.' "
When Daniel returned to school, he secluded himself for two weeks -- in the same dorm in which Cho killed his first two victims. When he did venture out to take a final exam, he put on sunglasses and a hat.
On a rare trip outside his dorm, according to his friends, Daniel was surprised in an elevator by a student who pelted him with punches and anti-Korean slurs.
The Kims knew none of this until after Daniel died. Only as William has mined his son's electronic records has he found chats in which his son told a friend that "I have depression or whatever." And this: "I'm half-black, half-Asian." And this: "I'm thinking about changing my name to Lainhart" because "Kim is just like hi guys I'm a gook."
Daniel understood but didn't speak his parents' native tongue. The Kims chose to live away from their fellow immigrants, encouraging Daniel and his sister to mix with all kinds of people near their Reston home and at South Lakes High School. "Dan's friends were mostly white, but he was always proud of being Asian," his father says. "Then, all of a sudden, he resents being Asian -- why? Is it because of the shootings?"
In IM chats with William last week, Daniel's friends variously said that he had fallen as much as $2,000 in debt from online poker games; that he had fallen for a girl who didn't share his feelings; that he had been drinking a lot, often by himself; and that he seemed to withdraw since last summer.
"I tried to do as much as I could, but it's not very easy when you have a purely Internet relationship," wrote a University of Minnesota student who played games with Daniel.
When William last spoke to Daniel on Nov. 30, his son said he'd be home in 10 days.
William Kim, smoking again for the first time in two years, is back at work, stealing away into his office whenever he can to search for more clues. He carries his son's cellphone everywhere he goes.
The Kims are still receiving mail from the university. The biggest envelope in the stack contains everything the family needs to know to get ready for their son's graduation.
By Marc Fisher |
January 13, 2008; 9:09 AM ET
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