Thursday, May 17, 2007

More on Campus Safety: Administrative Culpability?

This week's "Letters to the Editor" over at U.S. News and World Report react to the magazine's coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy of April 16, 2007. The section's entitled "Responding to Tragedy." There are a number of good and informative letters, but I particularly like the one that focuses on the role of administration in the job of protecting students -- perhaps this could be called "administrative preventive responsibility":

The student victims at Virginia Tech might very well be alive today had the school administration not abrogated its first responsibility-keeping its students safe from harm ["What Went Wrong?"April 30]. The administration knew that Seung Hui Cho was a stalker, wrote morbid, violent, hate-filled plays, set fire to his room, and even frightened professors and students to the point of being barred from class, yet it did nothing! As long as there are no consequences for bad behavior-let alone expulsion for outrageous behavior-we will witness more of the same. Administrators have the obligation to expel anyone who clearly demonstrates the propensity to harm others. For too long we have focused on judicial responsibility, mental health dictates, and gun-control strictures as means of preventing such heinous acts. Instead, we must make protection of students an administrative responsibility, on a par with fulfilling their educational mandate.

Lynn Field
Jamesburg, N.J.
Now, I've read a lot about the Virginia Tech tragedy, and many commentators and letter-writers (to various publications) were very supportive of the Virginia Tech administration, as well as the response of the school's law enforcement personnel. At my college, I have spoken out on campus emergency preparedness, though I have avoided taking pot-shots at the administration (for obvious reasons). But at any school, the administrative culture of a college sets the tone for the entire campus community, and I would hope that college and university administrators think about the types of questions raised in Field's letter.

In the case of Seung Hui Cho, perhaps he had not made specific enough threats -- and was thus not liable to be expelled from school. Note, though, that some female students had complained of stalking and text-message harassment. Rather than expulsion, perhaps Cho could have had better campus psychological support -- help that could have contributed to averting a massacre. Cho was arrested after the stalking epidsodes were reported to police. He had a hearing with an administrative judge, who had him involuntarily committed to a facility, but a psychologist released him the next day (after Cho said he was not suicidal). Cho later returned to the general student population.
The April 30,2007, edition of Newsweek reports that:
Cho had apparently dropped through the cracks of the university bureaucracy. University counseling services at big schools like Virginia Tech get a lot of traffic and do their best to hold their own. Hemming and hawing, university officials struggled last week to explain how Cho's earlier run-ins with the police and mental-health authorities seemed to be missing from his student records. It appears that the police reports were not passed on to the university's counseling program. Administrators talked circumspectly about "looking into things"; Gov. Tim Kaine appointed a commission.
I'll continue to provide updated information about campus emergency preparedness as I learn more. On that note, one of my students today gave me a copy of a letter on campus safety from his California Assemblymember, Ted W. Lieu (his Assembly webpage is here). Lieu's sponsoring legislation to require California public schools to provide information to parents, teachers, and staff on changes to a school's safety plans. (His legislative proposal is Assembly Bill 810.) Apparently, Assemblymember Lieu did a random sampling of California schools, and found that "many of our public schools either have outdated safety plans or no safety plans at all."

That's troubling. In addition to teaching at a California community college, I have small children in public school. Check back here later for possible future updates.

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