The 32 murders at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) shocked the nation, but what are some of the steps that can be taken to reduce the probability that such a massacre will happen again? A large portion of the blame can be laid at the feet of the VPI administration and its campus security personnel, who failed to warn students, faculty and staff.
Long before the massacre, VPI administration, security and some faculty knew Cho Seung-Hui, the murderer, had mental problems. According to The New York Times, "Campus authorities were aware 17 months ago of the troubled mental state of the student. . . ." More than one professor reported his bizarre behavior. Campus security tried to have him committed involuntarily to a mental institution. There were complaints that Cho Seung-Hui made unwelcome phone calls and stalked students. Given the university's experiences with Cho, at the minimum they should have expelled him, and their failure or inability to do so is the direct cause of last week's massacre.
But there is something else we might want to look at. There's a federal law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). As VPI's registrar reports, "Third Party Disclosures are prohibited by FERPA without the written consent of the student. Any persons other than the student are defined as Third Party, including parents, spouses, and employers." College officials are required to secure written permission from the student prior to the release of any academic record information.
That means a mother, father or spouse who might have intimate historical knowledge of a student's mental, physical or academic problems, who might be in a position to render assistance in a crisis, is prohibited from being notified of new information. Alternatively, should the family member wish to initiate an inquiry as to whether there have been any reports of mental, physical or academic problems, they are prohibited from access by FERPA. Of course, the student can give his parent written permission to have access to such information, but how likely is it that a highly disturbed student will do so?
FERPA is part of a much broader trend in our society where parental authority is being usurped. Earlier this year, San Francisco Bay Area Assemblywoman Sally Lieber introduced a bill that would prosecute parents for spanking their children. Because of widespread opposition, the assemblywoman withdrew her bill. Schools teach children sex material that many parents would deem offensive. Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order mandating that every 11- and 12-year-old girl be given Gardisil HPV vaccination as a guard against a sexually transmitted disease that can cause genital warts and even cervical cancer.
Last February, the Commonwealth of Virginia's legislature unanimously passed a law, the first of its kind in the country, that bans universities from expelling suicidal students. Such a law suggests that the Commonwealth's legislature is more concerned about the welfare of a suicidal potential murderer than the lives of his innocent victims. As such, those legislators might consider themselves in part culpable for VPI's 32 murder victims.
There is a partial parental remedy for governmental and university usurpation of parental rights through the power of the purse. Prior to writing out a check for a child's college tuition, have a legal document drawn up where the child gives his parents full and complete access to any mental, physical and academic records developed during the child's college career. While such a strategy might not be necessary for every parent, it should at least be considered by parents whose child has an unstable mental or physical history.