CHESAPEAKE STYLE Winter Edition
Virginia Tech: Make Sure It Doesn’t Get Out, a new book due for publication in the new year, pulls no punches in its investigation of the April 16, 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that claimed 33 lives. Author David Cariens delivers blow after blow in his look at systemic failures before, during and after the worst school shooting in the nation’s history. In 14 chapters, Cariens hammers away at dozens of key points from different perspectives – his own, drawing on both personal and professional experiences; through the eyes of family members of the shooting victims; in a scathing critique of the Governor’s Review Panel reports of the tragedy, and in discussions on gun control and American culture. He also gives an account of the lawsuit filed by two families, the trial, the verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and the pending appeal.
There are, regrettably, a lot of points to hammer home. They surface in summary fashion in the timeline of events that introduces most chapters, in more detail in the narratives that follow, and are reinforced by those affected directly by the tragedy.
The book’s first timeline is a sobering account of 35 school shootings; males with guns and mental health issues are all-too-common denominators. The timeline sets the tone for what follows. It also implies that lessons which come out of such tragedies are not learned universally or well, or with any staying power.
The first four chapters of Make Sure It Doesn’t Get Out give a detailed accounting of the Virginia Tech shootings, including the background of the shooter, Seung Hui Cho, and the warning signs that even when duly reported seemed to fall through the cracks – cracks that too many in authority fail to acknowledge. This lack of accountability is the theme for the remaining ten chapters. Recurring issues are how school administrators and law enforcement handled – or didn’t handle – the events that day, how they interacted – or didn’t – with family members, and how the official reports that followed blurred facts and skated around issues central to improving school safety.
During the Virginia Tech tragedy, 2 ½ hours elapsed without a campus lockdown between the double homicide in a dormitory, which was under investigation, and the mass shooting in Norris Hall; two students were even allowed to leave the dorm and attend classes, fatally, in Norris Hall. Cariens notes that a precedent already had been set for a lockdown; that word had gotten out to select individuals, and that some departments had locked down independently. He writes that a flawed timeline covered the failure to issue a warning, and that the official report glossed over pivotal facts, and in some cases erred altogether. Questions of conflict of interest in the reporting, and possible ulterior motives, also abound.