Monday, December 28, 2009


The fiasco known as the Governor’s Review Panel Report on the Virginia Tech shootings and the Addendum to that report, continues to sink into an abyss. The latest example of this downward spiral is the letter released by Virginia Tech spokesperson Mark Owczarski. Owczarski denies that two Policy Group members warned their families of the double homicide at West Ambler Johnston Hall. I am sorry Mr. Owczarski, but your words have no credibility. The actions of President Steger’s Virginia Tech before, during, and after the April 16, 2007 tragedy have not inspired confidence in the school’s truthfulness. You admit that members of the Policy Group talked with their families but say they did not warn them. I will believe you when I see the transcript of the conversations.

Great men and women, great nations, great universities admit when they are wrong. Virginia Tech was wrong at almost every turn of events in dealing with the April 16, 2007, tragedy. But instead of admitting their errors, members of the Steger administration apparently put their careers and reputations ahead of the truth. Within days the school hired Burson-Marseller, a high-priced public relations firm, to spin the truth to Virginia Tech’s advantage. They paid that firm $633,000.00 dollars manipulate the tragedy. You do not need spin-doctors if you are going to tell the truth.

Virginia Tech knew about the charge that Policy Group members warned their families about the shooting; Virginia Tech knew about many of the errors in the Review Panel Report’s text and timeline—but said next to nothing. Virginia Tech had numerous opportunities to help in correction the badly flawed report produced by TriData, but said little. To cry “foul” now borders on both intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy. Mr. Owczarski, if Virginia Tech thinks it has fooled people, the school is badly mistaken and is wallowing in a Blacksburg pool of self-delusion.

Mr. Owczarski, how can anyone believe a Virginia Tech spokesperson when we know the school wanted all contact between school personnel and investigative authorities to be handled through school channels? That’s manipulation. How can we believe a Virginia Tech spokesperson when we know the school ostracized Professor Lucinda Roy for wanting to speak candidly about Cho and the events before the shooting? Steger’s Virginia Tech nearly ostracized Professor Roy after the shootings. The school’s heavy-handed approach to Professor Roy and other members of the English department is well documented in Professor Roy’s book, No Right to Remain Silent.

There are no candles, no plaques, no trees that can help the families in the healing process—only the truth can begin to heal. But the truth is the last thing the Virginia Tech families are being given. My family experienced this lack of honesty with regard to the shootings at the Appalachian School of Law—I see it at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech’s moral/ethical compass, under President Charles Steger’s leadership, is so badly bent that it cannot be repaired in the near future—certainly not under his leadership. When historians address the Virginia Tech tragedy, they will have to write that it was a period when a great university lost its way and chose subterfuge over truth.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


The long-awaited revision to Governor Kaine’s Review Panel Report on the mass murders at Virginia Tech makes only minor progress toward analyzing the nation’s worst school shooting, does not totally correct a badly flawed timeline, and never addresses the questions of accountability and responsibility. The revision is inadequate and only confirms the impression that the report writers’ goal was not to analyze, not to make clear and concise judgments, and not to make hard-hitting conclusions and recommendations needed to help prevent future school shootings. The report writers’ goal appears to cover-up and to obfuscate.

The number of revisions, clarifications, and additions to the timeline are, by my count, at least 20. That number alone is an indictment of the initial report. Crime analysis 101 stresses the importance of the timeline in order to unravel and solve any crime. Yet, the timeline and almost all text corrections are thanks to the hard work of the victims’ families. TriData, the company that wrote the report, would have taken their half-million dollars and run, had it not been for the tenacity of those families. As if it is not bad enough to have you child murdered, you have to do the research to find the truth behind what happened. And, the state of Virginia rewards TriData for sloppy work by giving them another $75,000.00 to correct the report—based on the work of others.

The Addendum never really addresses the question of responsibility and accountability, TriData makes just enough revisions to give them the fig leaf of being able to say, “We listened to the families; we made revisions.” Ok, let’s lift up the fig leave and take a look at one of the revisions. The timeline entry on page 28 for 8:16-9:24 now reads:

“Police continue canvassing WAJ (West Ambler Johnston Hall) for possible witnesses. VTPD, BPD, and the VSP continue processing Hilscher’s room (4040) crime scene and gathering evidence. Investigators secure identification of the victims. Police allow students in WAJ to leave; some go to 9:00 a.m. classes in Norris Hall.”

TriData did not put in the Addendum the fact that two of the students allowed to leave WAJ, Rachael Elizabeth Hill and Henry J. Lee, were killed at Norris Hall. There can only be one reason for this omission, the report writers wanted to gloss over Virginia Tech’s colossal failure in handing the crisis of April 16, 2007. The failure of the school to issue a warning and lock-down cost these two students their lives—there can be no doubt of that fact. A lock-down would have meant Hill and Lee would not have been able to leave a police-secured environment—they would be alive today. Furthermore, there is nearly a 100% chance that a lock-down would have saved all the lives at Norris Hall.

Now, let’s take a look at one of the criticisms about the text of the report. In response to a question about the relevancy of the testimony by Dr. Jerald Kay on the frequency of shootings on campus—specifically whether his words were an attempt to downplay the serious of the Virginia Tech shootings in light of other dangers to students such as drunk driving; here is TriData’s response:

“The Review Panel invited Dr. Kay’s presentation for two reasons: First to consider the risk from guns as part of the larger picture of campus emergency planning. The Review Panel wanted colleges and universities to consider, as part of emergency planning, the whole range of threats and their likelihood, not just guns. Second, this testimony was of interest as part of the discussion of whether guns should be allowed to be carried on campuses. The frequency and nature of shootings on campus was very relevant to the deliberations of the Review Panel in making recommendations regarding these issues. It also was relevant in understanding the risk of a further shooting faced by the Policy Group after the double homicide.”

Here is the quote from Dr. Kay in the report:

“The panel heard a presentation from Dr. Jerald Kay, the chair of the committee on college mental health of the American Psychiatric Association about the large percentage of college students who binge drink each year (about 44 percent), and the surprisingly large percentage of students who claim they thought about suicide (10 percent). College years are full of academic and social stress. The probability of dying from a shooting on campus is smaller than the probability of dying from auto accidents, falls, or alcohol and drug overdoses.”

1. Nowhere does the report state that Dr. Kay says anything about guns
as part of emergency planning.

2. Where does the report tie Dr. Kay to the discussion of guns on

3. If the frequency and nature of shootings on campus was very
relevant to the Review Panel deliberations, why is Dr. Kay not
quoted on the subject?

4. What insight did Dr. Kay provide on understanding the risk of a
further shooting faced by the Policy Group after the double

Is TriData trying to tell us that binge drinking played a role in the killings at the Virginia Tech? As for the sentence: “The probability of dying from a shooting on a campus is smaller than the probability of dying form auto accidents, falls, or alcohol and drug overdose.” What possible reason could there be for this sentence in the report than to downplay the significance of gun violence on campuses—how stupid does TriData think people are?

TriData’s response is that they wanted colleges and universities to examine the whole range of threats. Fine, but that was not the Panel’s overwhelming priority and responsibility, nor was it the duty to emphasize those threats at the expense of analyzing the Virginia Tech shootings. There is nothing in the Panel’s mission statement telling them to go into a broader range of campus threats. Here is the Review Panel’s Mission Statement:

“The Panel’s mission is to provide an independent, thorough, and objective incident review of this tragic event, including a review of educational laws, policies, and institutions, the public safety and health care procedures and responses and the mental health delivery system. With respect to these areas of review, the Panel should focus on what went right, what went wrong, what practices should be considered best practices, and what practices are in need of improvement. This review should include examination of information contained in academic, health and court records and by information obtained through interviews with knowledgeable individuals. Once that factual narrative is in place and questions have been answered, the Panel should offer recommendations for improvement in light of those facts and circumstances.”

There ought to be a law against such poor research and writing at the tax payers’ expense. It must take an incredible amount of chutzpah to produce such a badly flawed report in the first place and then follow it up with an addendum that is a conundrum—an unanswerable puzzle within a puzzle. If the panel members and TriData personnel were in my class and gave me the Review Panel Report and the Addendum, I would—at best—give them a “D.” I don’t care how many degrees they have and what their credentials are—the Review Panel Report and the Addendum are stunningly inaccurate.

The Daily Press captured the failure of the TriData-written report beautifully when it wrote on December 10, 2009, “What could and should have been a last, official effort to get to the truth about the Virginia Tech shootings was used, instead, to tidy up the archives.”

“The choice was made by Governor Tim Kaine. When evidence came to light that the official inquiry failed to uncover and consider some significant information, he had options. He could ignore it, but victims’ families were pushing hard and he has tried to be responsive to them. He could reconvene the panel to reconsider its assessment of what happened that awful morning in April, 2007, when a deranged student killed 33 people and wounded others. Or he could turn over to a contractor the job of updating the report’s facts without changing the conclusions or recommendations or judgments.”

“He sent it to the rewrite man. What a shame.”

“... The panel failed to get the timeline of that morning right. That’s critical…”

“… Only relentless digging by reporters and families revealed that a version of the timeline accepted by the panel wasn’t accurate. … (the changes) shed a different light on their (the school administration’s) failure to warn the campus, which allowed students and faculty to gather in Norris Hall, where Cho gunned down so many of them, then himself.”

“… with failures of this magnitude there’s another piece of clean-up: accountability. No one has been publicly reprimanded, no consequences assigned.”

The Daily Press is absolutely right, as long as no consequences are assigned, as long as there are no public reprimands, the job remains unfinished. As a consequence, our schools are not as safe as they need to be. It is nothing short of a tragedy that an opportunity has been lost to make a difference, to find some sort of meaning in a horrific tragedy. As long as people are not held responsible for their actions or inactions, nothing meaningful will be done to protect our campuses.

For those who say the families should now move on, I ask, “How can anyone move on when their child has been gunned down and there is a cover-up? How can anyone move on when he or she knows that there are lies of omission dealing with the death of a child?” I want to ask Governor Kaine, Charles Steger and members of the Virginia Tech school administration, the review panel, and the people at TriData, “Don't you have consciences? Have you no shame?”