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 “good 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 jobs.
Many of the poor decisions I am talking about are made for fear of lawsuits or to protect careers. In doing my research I came across a similar example of 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, a University of California Berkeley student. 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 outpatient 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 overrode 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 pellet gun and then chased her into the back yard where he stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife.
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. A few weeks before Peter Odighizuwa killed three people and wounded three others, then-law-school President Lucius Ellsworth responded to requests from female faculty for campus security (the school had no security) by saying, “Oh you women, and your hormones, nothing will happen, it will be all right.” Ellsworth was never held accountable, or even asked to explain his words.
As for April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech, volumes could be written about the warning signs centering on Seung Hui 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; a faculty member threatened to resign because Cho frightened students and faculty alike, but he was not barred from campus. On top of this, on April 16, 2007, the school administration failed to follow its own security procedures and standards and as a result 30 people were slaughtered at Norris Hall.
On August 21, 2006, eight months before the Tech massacre, William Morva escaped from custody in Blacksburg, killing two people. There was no evidence or indication that Morva was on the Tech campus, yet the school closed down. On the morning of April 16, 2007, two students were found shot to death in a school dormitory, there were bloody footprints leading from the crime scene, and the school hesitated and vacillated over whether or not to even warn the campus. While administrators dithered, Cho made his way unhindered to Norris Hall, finding 30 more victims. And, no one has been 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. I will examine The Governor’s Review Panel Report, and TriData, the firm that wrote the report, in future posts.
Some argue that there is no way to prevent tragedies like the shootings at Berkeley, the Appalachian School of Law, and Virginia Tech, saying that history does not repeat itself. They are right, history does not repeat itself, but we can learn from history. The future cannot be predicted with exact certainty, but based on warning signs you can predict that the conditions exist and the stage is set for violence. We should and can 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 make it a crime for a university president and school officials to ignore warning signs; we can adopt laws that keep guns out of the hands of those who have been deemed a threat to themselves and others. We can and should learn from history.
Just because something has been done in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, does not mean the right things were done, and it is certain that not enough has been done. So I persist, I write in hopes that my words will sensitize the public—particularly parents—to the seriousness of the problem of school tragedies and the fact that much more must be done to prevent future shootings. (To be continued)