Thursday, July 29, 2010


Good people make terrible decisions with horrific results. The more I delve into the school shootings in this country, the more apparent that fact becomes. It also becomes crystal clear that our society needs to hold people accountable for their actions and inactions--particularly when they result in death. I am not talking about revenge; I am talking about removing people who clearly do not understand the law, override experts in mental health, or do not do their job.

Many of the poor decisions I am talking about are made for fear of lawsuits or to protect careers. I have documented the incredibly poor decisions made by people in positions of authority in connection with the shootings at the Appalachian School of Law and Virginia Tech. I was recently reminded of similar poor decisions made in connection with the murder of a freshman student at the University of California, Berkeley.

On October 26, 1969, Prosenjit Poddar, murdered Tanya Tarasoff. Poddar had met Tarasoff at a social event, fell in love with her and proposed marriage. When Tarasoff rejected the proposal, Poddar began stalking her.

Poddar voluntarily sought psychiatric help, saying he had thoughts of violence and getting even with Tarasoff. He had around eight sessions of out-patient therapy with Dr. Warren Moore over a period of two and a half months. When Dr. Moore challenged him about his violent tendencies, Poddar became angry and broke off therapy.

On August 20, 1969, Dr. Moore called the campus police and reported that Poddar was dangerous to himself and others. He provided the police with a letter from the acting head of the psychiatric department concurring with his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenic reaction, acute and severe. Dr. Moore proposed a 72-hour emergency detention order if the police would pick Poddar up and take him to the hospital.

Three police officers interviewed Poddar, and based on their interview, decided Poddar was not dangerous and did not detain him. To my knowledge, none of those officers had any experience or training in mental health, but they over-rode the recommendations of two highly trained mental health experts.

No one warned Tanya Tarasoff or her family of the threat Poddar posed.

On October 27, 1969, Poddar found Tarasoff alone at home shot her with a pallet gun and then chased her into the back yard where he stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife.

You have to ask, when will we learn? If people use a bad word or tell an off-color joke they are reprimanded, sanctioned, or may even lose their jobs. Often these are things that would not have even turned a head in the 1960s, but we do not seem to have learned anything from the 1969 shooting at UC Berkeley. People in authority make wrong decisions, ignore experts, or do not comply with existing laws, resulting in student murders—and still nothing happens, no one is held responsible.

In 2002, people in positions of authority ignored the warning signs at the Appalachian School of Law—requests for campus security from the faculty, the soon-to-be murderer taking over classrooms and ranting and raving, a doctor calling the killer a time-bomb waiting to go off, police ignoring the very basic rules of triage and allowing a critically wounded student to bleed to death when the hospital was 10 minutes away—I could go on and on.

Then on April 16, 2007, there was Virginia Tech. Volumes could be written about the warning signs centering on Cho. He was deemed a threat to himself and others, but no one put his name on the list making him ineligible to buy guns in the state of Virginia, faculty members threatened to resign because he was a danger to students and faculty alike. On top of this, the school administration broke its own security rules on the morning of April 16, 2007, and as a result 30 people were slaughtered at Norris Hall. And again, no one is held accountable.

To make matters worse, the state of Virginia paid a small fortune to a contracting firm to write a report that covers-up, glosses over, or does not address many of the actions that would make people culpable and accountable.

Some argue that there is no way to prevent these tragedies like these; that the future is not predictable. It is true that we cannot predict the future, but we should be able to learn from the past. We can learn from 1969, 2002, and 2007. If we will finally face the hard facts and realities of what led to these shootings, if we can make people in positions of authority accountable for their actions or inactions, we can prevent some of these kinds of shootings from happening again. We can learn from the past, and we can adopt laws that keep guns out of the hands of those who have been deemed a threat to themselves and others.