On April 16, 2009 the families of Julia Kathleen Pryde and Erin Nicole Peterson, two victims of the Virginia Tech shooting, filed a lawsuit in the Fairfax County Virginia Circuit Court against the school and its employees, the state, and the estate of gunman Seung-Hui Cho. The lawsuit alleges gross negligence and seeks $10 million in compensation.
The Pryde and Peterson families issued a statement explaining their actions and why they did not go along with the other victims’ family in reaching an out-of-court settlement. The two families said they declined to go along with the earlier settlement because they did not have all the facts on the handling of the shooting. The press quoted the Pryde and Peterson families as saying, “We believe that our suit is necessary to reveal truths that ultimately will benefit all those who have shared in this tragic loss.” The following is the statement issued by the two families explaining their actions:
“We raised our daughters with a sense of integrity, a desire to seek the truth and a belief in keeping their word. Virginia Tech did not keep its word to us. We have filed this lawsuit in the hope that we will receive accountability for the tragic events of April 16, 2007.”
“The faculty and students of Virginia Tech have been extremely supportive of the families during this difficult time. Erin and Julia loved Virginia Tech and they felt at home there and were receiving a wonderful education. But, on April 16, 2007 the administrators who ran the university let our daughters down in ways we are just now learning.”
“Sadly, the Report of the (Virginia Tech) Review Panel to the Governor, issued in August 2007, contained important inaccuracies, despite the panel’s best efforts to get to the truth. University officials, it now appears, may have been less than candid and forthright in their responses to the questions put to them by the panel.”
The two families’ statement hits the nail on the head—there are important inaccuracies, and university officials apparently were less than candid and forthright in their responses to the panel. Indeed, the new lawsuit may be the last best chance to find the truth and hold individuals accountable for their inexplicably poor judgment. If this lawsuit comes to trial:
1. The inaccuracies of timeline of events will be exposed and corrected.
2. President Steger, Chief Flinchum, and others will be put under oath and forced to reveal the content of their conversations and actions on the morning of April 16, 2007 following the first two killings.
3. The gun dealer, the ATF, and the state police will be required to turn over documents related to Cho’s weapons purchase—something they have so far refused to do.
4. The members of the school administration will be forced to reveal what they were told and when.
5. University officials will be forced to explain why some on the campus took security measures and locked down and others did not.
6. Members of the school’s Policy Group will have to explain why they felt the situation was serious enough to warn their family members, but not the rest of the school.
The Review Panel’s report was a factor in the out-of-court settlement by 30 Virginia Tech families. If the new lawsuit should prove that in any way that school officials deliberately misled the governor’s review panel, what are the implications for the 30 families who have already settled? Is that settlement null and void if it is based on faulty information; if the families were deliberately deceived? Can individuals be held accountable for making misleading statements? Could individuals be found guilty of obstruction of justice for withholding information from the Governor’s Review Panel?
The preceding questions come into sharper focus when you look at some of the details of the new law suit’s formal complaint:
1. Virginia Tech issued a release which obfuscated the fact that there had been a double homicide in a dormitory in the early morning of April 16, 2007; diluted any information to that effect; implied that there were not serious injuries or deaths in the shooting incident; and further implied that the incident was a completed event, that there was no gunman at large who was armed and dangerous and potentially on campus, and there was need for anyone on campus to take specific precautions for their own safety.
2. As an inadequate warning, it constituted no warning at all, and in a sense artificially reassured the students, faculty and employees that whatever occurred in West Amber Johnston Hall that morning was of much lesser consequences and risks than either the Morva incident or the two recent threatened bombings on the engineering campus. The language, content and lack of specificity of the alert clearly implied that there was no reason to take any specific action for one’s own safety.
3. In May, 2002, the United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education issued their report: Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. Research led to an inescapable conclusion: the first line of safety for students, faculty and employees is detection of those students who pose a risk of harm to fellow students, teachers or school employees. The published studies set out a list of early warning signs (and response to those signs. But,) as of October, 2005 and up to April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech had no threat assessment process, no threat assessment team, not threat assessment policies, protocols or plans. Had Virginia Tech followed this roadmap laid out in the report, Seung-Hui Cho would have been identified as a student at risk.
4. The records of Cho’s visit to the Cook Counseling Center and the records made by others and accumulated at the Cook Counseling Center with respect to Cho were required by Virginia law to be maintained. They were not… The absence of any records of Cho’s contacts with his adjudication of mental illness and dangerousness, the absence of records of his voluntary and involuntary order into out-patient therapy based upon that illness, … reflects the continued consequences of the negligence and gross negligence of the officers, agents, and employees of the Cook Counseling Center.
5. On April 16, 2007, the duly authorized agents of the university, seduced by the prospect of a successful fund drive, and driven to control the message of the morning of April 16th in fulfillment of that ambition and to protect the general reputation and image of the university, behaved in a deliberately indifferent way to the safety of the university’s students and faculty, (and) failed to warn them of the risks inherent in allowing a gunman who had already killed two to run loose on the campus.
It is my sincere hope that the Virginia Tech families will finally get the answers to all their questions. There is a saying that “to get over tragedy, you first have to accept that you will never get over it.” Based on our experience with the shooting at the Appalachian School of Law shootings, I know that to be true. But, in order to come to terms with the Virginia Tech tragedy, in order to move on with life, the truth about every aspect of that crime needs to be made public. Truth is the one thing the families of the victims need more than anything else. The new law suit is probably the last best way to find truth, to find peace, and to find justice—all of which, so far have been elusive.