Thursday, October 2, 2008

Searching for Answers; Searching for Justice

Two years following the shootings at the Appalachian School of Law I wrote the following article. The article appeared in two Virginia newspapers, but three others refused to print it for such reasons as: The article makes elected officials in Virginia look bad, and You live more than 50 miles from where the newspaper is published. These same newspapers willingly printed the words of Peter Odighizuwa who was sitting in a jail more than 50 miles away—and, by the way, the elected officials who “look bad” are the ones the papers endorsed for election.

Searching for Answers; Searching for Justice

Everyone sympathizes with the families when innocent men, women and children are gunned down in the all-to-frequent acts of violence in this country. Who didn’t agonize for the families and victims of Columbine? Every parent feels a deep sickness in the pit of the stomach when there is a school shooting—a sickness mixed with relief that, thank God, my child was not killed.

One day it is your child, or it is a member of your family. Two years ago a disgruntled student shot and killed the mother of our granddaughter, Angie Dales, and two faculty members at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia. Two long years of pain and tears. I have watched Angie’s father nearly die from the anguish and stress; I have watched the grief on Angie’s mother’s face deepen as she copes with the tragedy; I have watched our granddaughter go—in a split second—from an exuberant seven year old to a morose child. The two-year journey since January 16, 2002 has been terrible.

Time does not heal. Time allows you to come to terms with what has happened—but some wounds never heal. How do you “heal” the hours of screams from a seven-year-old when she is told her mother has been gunned down?

Time helps you live with the anger and rage stemming from the fact that a human being bled to death because she did not get help—when the hospital was three minutes away. Time allows you to think about her plea not to let her die—without losing your mind.

Those of us left behind spend hours and days saying if only she hadn’t been in the student lounge, if only she had not cancelled her lunch with a friend.

But she was there.

In the search for answers we look for warnings, indications of violence. Could this shooting have been prevented? Yes! Were there were warnings that should have alerted authorities to the potential for violence at the school? Yes!

The indicators were there. They were clear; there were many. The Appalachian School of Law had no campus security on January 16, 2002. Peter Odighizuwa, the gunman, was a threat. Indeed, he was such a threat to the staff, that one employee—fearing for her safety—had had him banned from her office. Others expressed their alarm to school officials, yet nothing had been done. He had argued and fought with students and staff alike. Yet nothing was done. The school did nothing and ignored all the warning of danger time and time again.

Mr. Odighizuwa was not the only threat on campus. A year before Angie was murdered, she received the following from a fellow student after her computer accidentally sent a virus to another student:

“You fucking cocksucker, If you ever try to send me another virus again, I will track you down, cut your nipples off, and stick jumper cables in you and connect them to my truck. I’m not bullshitin. May the sheriff will find you hanging from a tree in Longbottom.”

The e-mail was reported to the school and to the police, but the investigation turned up “nothing.” No realistic investigation was conducted, and still there was no campus security. The family’s request to see the police investigation of the e-mail has been denied. We have been told it is “confidential.” Even the State Police promise to retrieve the report from Richmond and answer our questions has never been met—after months of waiting.

Indeed, a State Highway patrolman has angrily lectured us. He told the family we should be content the Mr. Odighizuwa will get his punishment in the hereafter. We should be content with that! The police claim they do not know who wrote the e-mail and that there is no connection to the murders on January 16th.

How would they know there is no connection if they do not know who wrote the e-mail?

In any case, there was a connection, because this was one more warning of danger to students that the law school knew about, but took no precautions for the safety of their students.

Our two-year journey has taken us to schools throughout Virginia. Is it unreasonable for us—or any parent—to ask that a school have campus security? No. Between 30 and 40 Virginia colleges and universities contacted—all sizes, private, and public—have campus security predating September 11th. The Appalachian School of Law had none.

We have been cautioned, warned not to press our questions, not to press for answers. Privately, friends in the legal profession tell us we will only bring more grief on ourselves. These friends have even raised the specter that in ways, both big and small, life will become difficult for us in the Old Dominion. Virginia’s politicians and legal professionals will close ranks to protect the law school, they warned. We have been warned that the legal establishment in Grundy has so many ties to the school and has so much invested in it that a retired coal miner and his wife, a retired school cook will never get their day in court. From Richmond, to Fairfax County, to Norfolk, to Grundy—the answers have been the same. Law firm after law firm has refused to take on the law school.

The American Bar Association says there is no more fitting response to the tragedy than to continue to build a program of legal education that promotes the rule of law, opportunity, and justice.

Where is Angie’s opportunity? Where is our justice when those in charge do everything they can to keep the truth from coming out?

When the police and school failed to bring the author of the hideous e-mail to justice, Angie told her family, “I guess I don’t amount to much.” You are wrong Angie, you mean everything to us and we will not let go of your memory, we will not let go of this fight for justice. On May 8th Angie should have graduated from the Appalachian School of Law—instead of attending the ceremony, we waited for answers.

Wherever you are, Angie, feel our anguish, feel our love. If you are calling our names, our hearts are answering.

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