On April 2, 2009, Virginia Intermont College hosted a tribute to Angela Dales, an alumna of the class of 1991, who was killed in the January 16, 2002 shooting at the Appalachian School of Law. Lori Haas, whose daughter was wounded in the Virginia Tech shootings on April 16, 2009, joined us. We addressed a gathering of students, staff, and faculty. A reception and book signing followed the presentations. The following are my remarks:
Let me begin by thanking Virginia Intermont and specifically, Ronan King, for arranging this presentation and book signing. Today is a wonderful tribute to Angela Dales. She loved this school and today she would be so proud of what is taking place on this campus. She spoke of the school frequently—always in glowing terms. Even after graduating, she frequently came back to the Virginia Intermont to see members of the faculty and staff whom she counted among her dearest friends.
It was at Virginia Intermont where Angela Dales and our son, David, met and fell in love. It was on these school grounds that they planned their future together, that they told each other their hopes and dreams. It was on this campus that Angela Dales practiced one of her passions: writing. Her poems appeared in your literary journal, she dreamed of writing the great American novel. I am so deeply sorry to be here today with a book that is about her, rather than by her. I am so sorry that we have to meet to discuss the violence that plagues our campuses—that has robbed scores of young people of their hopes, their dreams, and their lives.
By attending today’s session you are honoring her memory and that honor means so much to my wife and me, as well as to Angie’s parents—Sue and Danny Dales who are here today.
The greatest tribute we can pay to Angela Dales and all the victims of school shootings is to re-double our efforts to make our campuses safer. Hopefully, in colleges and universities--in forums such as this--we can come together and begin to take control of this problem. We must have the strength to meet this problem head-on; we must have the will and determination to examine this violence; to root out its causes. No matter how painful it is, we cannot shy away from the task that faces all of us—to make our schools safer.
The sad truth is that seven years after the shooting at the Appalachian School of Law and nearly two years after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, Virginia’s colleges and universities are still not as safe as they need to be. The problem is so immense that at times it is overwhelming.
Let me quote from a poignant and compelling article in the Denver Post, by Mike Littwin following the recent shootings in Alabama and Germany. Mr. Littwin has covered the all-to-many school shootings beginning with Columbine. “And if there’s one lesson to take from Columbine, it is that whatever happens, we never seem to learn anything. That’s how we come to meet again at the intersection where disturbed young men turn into psychopaths with access to guns. … Years (after Columbine), after too many massacres, the killings are treated more like natural phenomena—they come, like tsunamis, (they come in giant waves of horror and sweep over us) and then drift from our consciousness, leaving death and sorrow in their wake.”
“In each new town, the same story emerges—the flowers, the poems, the candles, the turn to religion, the questions about a just God, the young people learning far too young the meaning of tragedy.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Littwin’s words are all too true, but we cannot treat these shootings as natural phenomena. These shootings are anything but natural. They are an abomination, and they are occurring with such regularity that they are no longer phenomena.
The simple fact remains that until individuals who are in charge; until people who are in control, understand that if they ignore clear warning signs and end up costing the lives of students, staff, or faculty members, they will pay a price, they will lose their jobs. Furthermore, until both houses of the Virginia legislature adopt laws that ensure that individuals who are a threat to themselves and others are treated and that weapons are kept out of those individuals’ hands—Virginia’s schools are not safe. Virginia voters should remove legislators who shy away from their duties to help ensure the safety of our schools.
There are three words that capture what I am trying to say. I am talking about three words that are spoken in every court room in this land, every day: responsibility, accountability, and liability.
The parallels in both school shootings—the Appalachian School of Law and
Virginia Tech—are staggering. The litany of human failings in both tragedies knows no bounds. We learn nothing by glossing over these short-comings; we dishonor the dead students and faculty members by shying away from reality; from the fact that those two tragedies took 35 innocent live and wounded scores of others.
We can engage in intellectual debates about the interpretation of this or that law; we can argue over what the founding fathers meant to guarantee in the second amendment—but the simple fact is that there can be no campus safety until school officials, law enforcement personnel, and politicians are held responsible for both their actions and inactions. While these intellectual debates have gone on, lives have been lost.
Poor decisions by good people are not an acceptable defense in a court room or anywhere else—especially when those poor decisions have catastrophic results. If I made a poor decision and ran a stop sign resulting and in the deaths of 30 people, I could not stand in front of a judge and say that I am a decent man who has done wonderful things throughout his life and therefore I should not be held liable or accountable for my poor judgment and what happened. Yet this is exactly what has happened here in Virginia in the cases of both the Appalachian School of Law and Virginia Tech.
Ignoring the Warning Signs or Failing to Act
The Appalachian School of Law: A few weeks before the shooting, three female staff members’ complaints about the shooter, Peter Odighizuwa, were brought before the school’s “core administrative staff.” That staff included school President Ellsworth, Dean Anthony Sutin, and Associate Dean Paul Lund. Documents in the Wise County, Virginia Court House contain President Ellsworth’s words in brushing the complaints aside: “You women and your hormones and your women’s intuition……There is nothing you women need to be afraid of….It will be ok.” A few weeks after that meeting Dean Sutin, Professor Blackwell and student Angela Dales lay dead from Odighizuwa’s bullets.
Virginia Tech University: The warning signs concerning Seung Hui Cho’s unstable and potentially violent nature were just as evident. Indeed, we could spend the full hour listing the warnings signs at Virginia Tech.
I will only say that in the fall of 2005, Cho’s writings in Professor Nikki Giovanni’s “Creative Writing: Poetry” class were so dark and menacing that students dropped out. Professor Giovanni contacted the Dean of the English department saying that unless Cho was removed from the class, she would resign.
In the spring of 2006, Cho wrote a paper for a creative writing class concerning a young man who hated the students at his school and planmed to kill them and himself.
You have to ask, how many warning do people in positions of authority need before they will act?
While some of you may argue that hindsight is 20-20. I would argue that hindsight is foresight—the signs cannot be ignored. The lessons from the Appalachian School of Law were ignored, making a Virginia Tech inevitable. The lessons from Virginia Tech are currently being ignored.
The State Police Refused to Turn Over Key Documents in Both Cases:
As long as law enforcement officials refuse to turn over documents central to finding out what led up to these tragedies, we can never learn. In the words of one of the nation’s leading authorities on campus security and violence in the workplace—such a refusal is disgusting.
In the case of the Appalachian School of Law, Angela Dales received threatening email several months before she was murdered. The email was in clear violation of both state and federal laws. The school and police failed to thoroughly investigate the email and the sender was never identified. Yet following the shooting, the police asserted the email had nothing to do with the school shooting. If you don’t know who sent the email, how can you make such an assertion? Furthermore, the police refused to let the dead student’s family look at the investigative report. The police did promise to read its content to the family and answer questions. Seven years later the family is still waiting for that to happen.
I turned the threatening email over to the FBI. A special agent was aghast saying the email showed all signs of a serial killer and was upset that the Virginia State Police never turned it over to the FBI. The special agent immediately turned the email over to the FBI unit that was the inspiration for The Silence of the Lambs.
In the case of VirginiaTech, the Virginia State Police, the ATF and the gun dealers each refused to provide the Governor’s Review Panel with copies of the applications Cho completed when he bought his weapons or other records relating to any background check that may have done in connection with these purchases. The most horrific school shooting in this country’s history and the state police, the ATF, and the gun dealers refuse to cooperate! This is disgraceful. The Virginia State Police did, however, DESCRIBE the contents of Cho’s gun purchases to members of the panel and its staff.
Flawed or No Analysis of the Two Shootings
We will never learn if we do not analyze these tragedies, learn from that analysis, and turn those lesson into practice. In the case of the Appalachian School of Law no analysis was ever done. An opportunity was lost, an opportunity that might have helped identify Seung Hui Cho as a threat to himself and others.
In the case of Virginia Tech, the blue-ribbon panel established by Governor Kaine was badly flawed from the outset.
1. The panel was impeded in its work by FOIA rules that did not allow more than two members to meet together or speak by phone without it being considered a public meeting—bureaucracy at its worst.
2. 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.
3. The panel itself was a prime example of conflict of interest and/or bias. Former Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge publicly stated before the panel convened that the tragedy could not have been prevented—if that is not a bias, I don’t know what is. To suggest that a state panel investigating the activities of a state organization and state employees will be objective is sheer folly. And, there is the state’s appointed representative on the panel—the fact that the families did not select their representative does not speak well for the panel’s objectivity.
4. The final report itself engages in word games; sugar-coating glaring errors. For example the report divides its findings and recommendations into two categories: “What was done well, and what could have been done better.”
Security on Virginia’s college campuses is woefully lacking—particularly when compared to schools in other states. The state university system in New York, for example, has a system that could serve as a model for Virginia. I have copies of that security system and program with me, if any of you would like a copy. I will only say that they can lock down all campus buildings with four strokes on a computer key board, and there are security cameras in all the buildings.
If every school in this country had as well thought out and run security plan as the one at Oneonta, our school grounds would be a far, far safer place. I will give you just one example of what the university system in New York has done—with the stroke of four fingers on a computer keyboard, they can lock down all buildings on their campus. I have copies of the program that is already in place in New York.
A Looming Crisis
The points that I have just raised with you in connection with the
shootings at the Appalachian School of Law and Virginia Tech are, in many respects, part of a far broader crisis we face in this country—a crisis centering on a lack of ethical behavior.
The actions of school officials, law enforcement officers, and politicians in dealing with the events before, during, and after both school shootings here in Virginia may not have been illegal, but they were unethical and morally unconscionable. Indeed, some scholars point to a growing crisis of ethics in this country. I think they are correct. I quote from a book on ethics by Rushworth Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices. He says this, “In a society lacking ethics, trust drains away faster than rainfall in a desert. Without trust, there is no basis for agreement … Without trust, in other words, there is no way for any sort of human relations to be sustained.”
Those of us who have analyzed the two terrible school shootings here in Virginia come away with a lack of trust in what we are told, a lack of trust in the disingenuous expressions of support and sympathy, and certainly a lack of trust and confidence in people who are supposed to keep our schools safe.
That same book gives these alarming statistics—people who admit to cheating in their intended specialties:
Law schools: 63 percent
Arts programs: 64 percent
Public service and government programs: 66 percent
With these statistics is any wonder that we have a report analyzing the Virginia Tech massacre that engages in wholesale obfuscation and double-talk? This report is bias. It skews and sugar coats the evidence, and it does not ask (much less answer) the right questions. I cannot help but speculate that some of those who produced the governor’s report on Virginia Tech were in the 60 percentile that Kidder is referring to.
In the final analysis, however, the most sophisticated security system is only as good as the people in charge, the best psychological counseling is only as good as the individuals doing the testing, and the best contingency or emergency plans are only as good as the people who implement them.
CONCLUSION: None of us in the room has the answer to these horrific crimes—there is no one answer—but it is in forums such as this one at Virginia Intermont College that we can begin to find ways to make our campus and school grounds safer. For that reason I want to express my deep and sincere gratitude and thanks to Virginia Intermont College, Ronan King, and all of you who took time to come here.
Eight days ago I sat in the law library of the College of William & Mary on a panel discussing violence on campuses. I was in Thomas Jefferson’s college. Jefferson drafted one of the greatest documents in history—The Declaration of Independence. That document contains these words, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…” Thomas Jefferson, a great American, a founding father, a native Virginian, and graduate of the College of William and Mary, put the right to live at the forefront of thoughts and words, the right to life is an unalienable right, a right that came before the Constitution, a right that came before the Bill of Rights.
We must hold people in positions of authority responsible, accountable, and liable for their actions—until we do, our unalienable right to life will not be guaranteed. We must begin to take control of this problem. Thank you so much for honoring Angela Denise Dales. If she were here today she would be so moved by your tribute. With those words I thank you and I close.