Friday, September 5, 2008


Governor Kaine’s Review Panel Report on the shootings at Virginia Tech is badly flawed; it does not address the problems central to the causes behind the shooting and shies away from making the tough recommendations need to get at the heart of the problem and prevent future shootings on school grounds.

I have read the report several times and each time I come away scratching my head. The sheer size of the report is noteworthy, but its failure to face up to what needs to be done—hold people accountable for their actions and inactions—makes the report an exercise in futility.

First, the report did not address issues that needed to be addressed such as identifying mistakes in judgment and the individuals who should be held accountable for their actions or inactions. Indeed, the report is an amazing exercise in avoiding accountability and legal liability.

Second, the panel itself which investigated the tragedy and wrote the report is a prime example of conflict of interest. A state panel examining the behavior of state employees and a state organization cannot be completely objective—classic conflict of interest. To even suggest that the panel was completely objective is sheer folly—particularly when the state was so well represented and not one member of the victims’ families was a panel member. And, there is the state’s bought-and-paid-for family representative and spokesperson on the panel—again, a conflict of interest that is hardly conducive to impartiality.

Third, several key players declined to cooperate with the review panel. I find that lack of cooperation disheartening and puzzling. Specifically, the Virginia State Police, the ATF, and the gun dealers “declined to provide the panel with copies of the applications” Seung Hui Cho completed when he bought the weapons that would eventually kill over thirty innocent people. I cannot imagine why they failed to cooperate with this blue-ribbon panel. The report notes that “the Virginia State Police … did describe the contents of Cho’s gun purchase applications to members of the panel and its staff.” The state police’s willingness to “describe” is a limp attempt to explain their failure to cooperate and provide the panel with documents related to the shootings is a lethal flaw in the report—it is inexcusable.

Fourth, the panel was impeded in its work by the FOIA rules that did not allow more than two members to meet together or speak by phone without it being considered a public meeting. This is bureaucracy at its worst. The report needs to be more specific in detailing the problems this bureaucratic obstacle presented.

Fifth, the report sugar-coats glaring errors and problems: for example, the report on page 10 says talks about the findings and recommendations in the report being two different kinds. “What was done well, and what could have been done better.” The report should talk about people in positions of authority failing to do their jobs—“could have been done better” is backing away from holding individuals and institutions accountable for their actions. Until accountability becomes part of the analysis and remedial steps, these tragedies are doomed to continue.

In this same vein, the report says that the police may have made an error in reaching the premature conclusion that their initial lead (following the discovery of the first two shooting victims) was a good one and that the person of interest was probably not on campus. May have made an error? They did make a very serious error by jumping to a premature conclusion and giving the wrong impression to school officials. This error should never be glossed over!

Sixth, the report appears to make excuses for the decision of the university’s Policy Group not to put out a campus-wide alert following the discovery of the first two bodies. The previous August, the university had put out an alert that a convict named William Morva had escaped from a nearby prison and killed a law enforcement officer and a guard. The alert indicated that the murderer was on the loose and could be on campus. The university set its own standard in August of 2006 by issuing that alert, and then violated that standard in April 2007. Lives could have been saved had that alert gone out. The report skirts around this critical point.

In sum, the report fails to do its job in critical areas; it is bland, and raises no real red flags. The report is the equivalent of reading a book with no thesis. The recommendations indicate this or that “should” be done. The “shoulds” relate to such things as analyzing, training, complying with this or that act, police being members of panels, and so on and so forth. Yes, these “shoulds” need to be done. But, nowhere does the report say that individuals should be held accountable for their actions or inactions; that organizations and individuals must be held accountable when they break their own standards and over 30 lives are lost.

The report is impressive in size and unimpressive in content. The report falls short of what it needed to do…make clear that everyone in a position of responsibility must be held to standards of safety and that failure to meet those standards will result in stiff penalties. Instead, the reader is left wandering from page to page in an effort to tie ends together and make these conclusions for herself or himself.

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