The Virginia Tech Reckoning

Can a blue-ribbon panel make sense of the Cho massacre?

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—The Virginia Tech Incident Review Panel is tasked with explaining the inexplicable. As University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III says in welcoming the panel to his campus this morning, the challenge for everyone is “how to draw rational conclusions from an irrational event.”

If it’s true that the events of April 16, when Cho Seung-Hui shot and killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech really are, in the end, beyond explanation, the most this panel can hope to achieve is to distinguish between those problems that are fixable and those that are not.

Today’s is the fourth and final public session of the panel, which has been meeting around the Commonwealth of Virginia to determine what went wrong last spring, and how to improve legal, mental-health, and emergency-response systems in the future. But even as the proceedings open, what’s abundantly clear is that the panel’s focus—on better police protocols, improved training and communications, more rigorous mental-health, privacy, and gun laws—is not the concern of the victims’ families.

As the eight-member panel sits on the stage, one expert after another addresses policy concerns from a lectern to the left. Some offer concrete suggestions. Don Challis, president of the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, explains why nobody should expect a college campus to go into “lockdown” (it works for children and businesses but not college campuses) and why students arming themselves defensively is the worst possible solution to campus gunmen. Richard Bonnie, an expert on law and mental health from the University of Virginia, suggests that increased use of outpatient commitment systems would be more effective and ultimately less costly than the current arrangement.

But the first three rows in the auditorium are filled with the parents of dead children, and while every theory, proposed improvement, and question is at least nominally directed toward them, nobody can possibly explain why their children are dead. Since they do not get a chance to speak until the very end of the day, they become a sort of silent Greek chorus, arrayed between the panel and the audience; sitting between what this commission wants to do and what it can do.  

There has been enormous tension between the families and the panel. Some families sought to be included on the commission and some have said they felt sidelined and ostracized. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine met with them after the last public panel session, promising better communication. This tension was addressed directly in today’s meeting when Col. Gerald Massengill, the chairman, opens with a candid admission that they had been so “focused on information-gathering” they had not adequately “reached out to the families.” He vows to “do better,” a refrain we’ll hear often over the course of the day.

The last thing most of these families wanted today was PowerPoint presentations on the composition of “violence prevention teams,” or pallid corporate-speak about bringing together “stakeholders” at the table. As the panel recesses for lunch, Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie Sherman was killed that day, explains that all she wanted was some finding of responsibility and accountability. “On a nationwide scale, it would be very nice if we could fix these problems. But my problem is my daughter’s dead. I want to know why.” Much of what these families want to know—what was wrong with Cho, who knew, what his medical records contained or did not contain—has been turned over to the panel only recently and reluctantly. Much of what they also want to know—what went so horribly wrong that day and why their lives are ruined—may be unknowable.

Only one speaker seems to bridge the divide between the panel’s focus on “doing better” in the future and the parents’ need for answers and explanations. Dr. Russell Federman, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, walks the panel through his program’s procedures and systems while cautioning that no system is foolproof: Perfect control is an illusion, and we must, in some sense, recognize the Virginia Tech episode for the aberration it was. That is the larger problem of course; this panel is trying to frame a massive discussion of gun policy, mental-health policy, and privacy law in terms of an event that was an outlier, and outliers never make for very good policy. The mere act of trying to explain the inexplicable and turn it all into better programs and protocols itself does violence to these families’ very real losses.

Both Federman and Bonnie are clear that federal privacy laws were not the cause of Virginia Tech. The police chiefs are equally clear that the police response was not the cause, either. This leaves the question of what did cause this great carnage somehow unasked and unanswered. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, one of the panel members, grows exasperated at the lack of information-sharing between universities and parents. “I have two kids in college and the schools can’t tell me my kid is suffering from mental-health problems?” Federman surprises the panel, and perhaps even himself, with the confession that in cases where he must choose between opening himself up to liability for breach of student confidence vs. liability for failing to act to protect the larger community, his choice isn’t difficult: “There are times when I do breach confidentiality, knowing full well that I may face liability. And we take it from there.”

But Federman also comes down strongly on the side of student privacy, including the absolute right of students to keep their prior mental-health records from prospective colleges. He argues that such records actually tell you very little anyhow, that deeply troubled students can rarely hide it on campus for long, and that “in an open and free society, one has the choice to keep their pain secret.”

The Virginia Tech parents who speak after lunch are not so inclined to keep their pain secret. Cathy Read, who lost her daughter Mary, begs the panel members not to take too narrow a view of their task. Dennis Bluhm, whose son Brian was killed that day, says he will not be satisfied with recommendations for the future, “a pat on the back,” and instructions to move on. Joe Samaha, who lost his daughter Reema, demands accountability: “This happened on someone’s watch. Someone has to take responsibility and someone has to apologize.”

That’s the unenviable task this panel now faces: They must explain that which mostly defies explanation, and they must strive to do better in the future as reparations for what cannot be fixed in the past. They answer to a public that wants to feel safe sending their children off to university next month, and to victims’ families who will never feel safe again. They are charged with helping the country and the university to move on, when that is the very last thing these families can ever do.