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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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My 25-yr old son shot himself to death last August in a lonely motel room near the College Park campus where he was a criminal justice major. He had a long history of mental and physical problems and we and his doctors thought we were on a good path towards Alex graduating and becoming an independent adult. But the breakup of a long-standing relationship with a girl turned him away from his upward path. He hid his intentions from everyone, lied about the fact he had stopped going to class, was failing. The school did not contact us. I will be 60 in a week or so. I've been quite ill for the last 2 years and finally at the end of July gave in and went into the hospital to have a large part of my colon taken out. I mention this because it helps show how one's attention can be diverted from what else is going on. I might have realized how badly the breakup must have affected him, but I was too ill to think of much else. Both his psychologist who provided therapy and his psychiatrist who provided drugs knew he had intentions - and they knew he had a gun which he picked up the day before my surgery. They did not warn us because they thought they had a deal with Alex for him to turn the gun over to his mother and work things out with us -- he always in the past when this sort of crisis arose kept his word. Not this time. I don't know that anything either the school or his doctors might have done would have done more than merely postpone what happened. I don't know if I ever could have saved him. If you look in Hesse's book Siddhartha you find the bottom line advice that each of us must find our own path and no father, no teacher, no clergyman can spare anyone from life's lonely individual path. Surely there was a history in the case about which you wrote. Despite all clues, however, and despite even certain knowledge of intent and means at hand, there may be nothing anyone can do to stop their child from deciding that their present pain is unendurable and ending their life is the only way to stop that pain. They don't think about the terrible, debilitating and never ending sorrow and pain they have laid now on the shoulders of their parents and siblings. They don't think how much we miss him, how much we cry, how ill we've become or the enormity of the burden we must now carry and overcome to go on together as a family without him. I would not be so quick to judge or assume that there are any institutional measures that would solve or even improve many of these cases. Perhaps some, but by no means all such cases can be prevented through information sharing or better communication. In the end, it is a matter of choice an adult makes -- and interference with the rights of an adult makes effective intervention a much more difficult matter than it was when I had my boy under my paternal control. I ask myself every minute of every day what more could I have done, what should I have done I did not do. There are no answers I have found to stop the pain of loss. There is only the resolve to confront these feelings and over time, grow strong enough to live with them.

Posted by: Bill | January 13, 2008 10:24 AM

Bill, I hope and pray that you and your family, and the Kims, find the peace you deserve.

And I hope the Kims sue the heck out of Tech. Enough already with the "it's not our jurisdiction" nonsense. We are talking about young adults whose judgment isn't fully formed (acording to latest brain research the prefrontal cortex doesn't completely mature until one's mid-20s -- scary thought -- which explains much of my college behavior). Additionally, they are in the grip of a terribly debilitating disease that warps reality. Better to do everything to save a life and possibly violat privacy issues and risk lawsuits than to let a promising life die.

Posted by: Tracey | January 13, 2008 11:10 AM

What a tragic story (and Bill's too). The last paragraph had me in tears -- how "insensitive" are people that they sent out the graduation packet? Surely they had enough time to remove Daniel from their mailing list!

My parent's goddaughter is bipolar and has been under treatment since her days at Penn State. She's since graduated from Penn with a useless health administration degree (she was told she can't get a job unless she has years of "hands on experience"), and now she's studying to be a nurse at UNC where she still struggles to regulate her mood and meds.

Posted by: WDC 21113 | January 13, 2008 11:15 AM

Gun laws need to be changed to include information about mental health problems as a minor. That is one change in the law that would have helped prevent my son's death, and certainly could have prevented the massacre at Virginia Tech: Gun law background checks do not include information on hospitalizations for the risk of suicide when the patient was a minor. Both my son and the Virginia Tech shooter had such a history. Neither of them should have been able to buy a gun.

Posted by: Bill | January 13, 2008 11:28 AM

Bill, thanks for your post. I wish you and your family (and the Kims) the very best as you grapple with profound sadness.

I'm 9 years removed from a suicide attempt myself (which occurred when I was 22, right after getting out of college). Not too much insight to share here except for the fact that I'm thankful that I was unsuccessful....aging, maturity, etc., has given me the ability to better cope w/ life's many lows and highs.

As far as your comment about making juvenile mental health treatment part of an individual's "record" when they attempt to purchase firearms, I agree with the sentiment but am not sure that this would ever make it's way into law.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 13, 2008 4:26 PM

When I was a student at college park in the 1980s I knew many people from the arts association I ran. All of these people were interested in the arts and alternative culture, so it attracted people who were already going through personal issues or felt like they didn't fit in. In three cases there were people I know who were hitting rock bottom fast enough that I called their parents to tell them it was time to do something. In easily a dozen cases I got a girl or boyfriend or the kids themselves convinced that they needed to talk to someone. I was hardly perfect, nor that unique on a college campus.

I'm sorry Bill, I'm 15 years older than your son, but I still face so much anguish when I hear about these stories because I was there so many times... driving someone back from the airport where they dropped off their catatonic and despondent boyfriend for a visit back with his folks... knowing that it would be at least a year of therapy and junior college before they'd come back to Maryland. I don't think I'll ever not feel personally responsible to address these issues when I see them firsthand.

Posted by: Dcer | January 13, 2008 5:18 PM

This was simply a tragedy. An avoidable tragedy. Virginia Tech did not do their job. Unfortunately there is no way of righting their wrong. I believe that a serious law suit is a step in the right direction. Perhaps the out come might save the lives of other young people in trouble, and change the regretable privacy policies that these colleges currently have.

Posted by: DC 20016 | January 14, 2008 2:12 AM

The suicides of Daniel and Bill's son were both tragedies. In the wake of these and similar incidents, we hope that VA Tech and other schools will change their policies and reach out to students in crisis with services and supports.

We have proposed a model policy for supporting students which suggests that:
[Colleges/universities] refer a student to the counseling center when it learns that:
• The student exhibits academic, behavioral or other difficulties that appear to be due to depression or another mental health condition, or
• The student has made a suicidal gesture or is known to have contemplated suicide.

If a referred student does not seek services through the counseling center or another service provider, the counseling center make individualized efforts, including direct outreach, to encourage the student to access services.

The complete policy can be viewed at http://www.bazelon.org/pdf/SupportingStudents.pdf

Posted by: Karen Bower, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law | January 14, 2008 12:10 PM

My children are adolescents but I read these stories with interest and compassion. This column left an impression on me. I could not stop thinking about Daniel's parents and their anguish. Again, Marc Fisher wrote from the heart and, although I have not had an instance of suicide in my family, it always seems to be a threat to our youth. One issue not discussed here is the issue of race. The fact that the VA Tech shooter was from Korea left quite an impression on Daniel. He should have been able to dismiss the taunts about his Korean background by the students but, instead, these taunts (shame on our "bright" Tech students) seemed to send him over the edge. I wonder if counselors ever approached this issue on campus? In light of this case, is it too sensitive of a subject to discuss or, is this a wake-up call? My children grew up with Columbine, 9/11, the sniper, and, now the VA Tech shootings. The oldest is 15. I talk to them each time one of these horrific situations occurs so they understand that these tragedies are just as confusing and upsetting to me. We have also talked about race. I do not think that subject should be overlooked at any school level. The teaching of tolerance is left up to the parents and is, unfortunately, not often treated as an important topic in the home.

Posted by: Nova Mom | January 15, 2008 9:49 AM

I'm just saying. If you have information that someone has bought a gun and has the potential for suicide, don't send an e-mail. Pick up the phone. Call somebody. Demand action. Don't send an e-mail. It's a format that lacks the urgency that the moment requires. I'm just saying.

Posted by: Robert in Fredericksburg | January 15, 2008 4:29 PM

I am of course sorry for everyone that has lost someone in events such as the april 16th massacre, or for the Kims in losing their son. However, I would like to clear up that I do not believe it is the University's fault. They have so many students and to try and analyze every single one is nearly impossible. They do what they can, we have several clinics for those that would like simply just someone to talk to any many others. I have not once seen racism against asians, and I know that I can not be everywhere where people are at once, but I know that most of the student population looks at the rest of the VT population as simply a community of hokies. Until you are here, you can not understand the open community that exists here and the love everyone has for each other, especially since the tragedy. I believe the University is doing all they can, especially since they can't intervene until someone is a threat to themselves or others. There was no proof to Virginia Tech that something had to be done further past asking him, they could not force him to speak out. As for the graduation mail, that also I something that they surely didn't do purposely. Daniel and the Kim Family are well welcomed into our hokie family, as they were and always will be.

Posted by: Hokie | January 16, 2008 7:26 PM

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