To those reading my words who say Steger and school officials shouldn’t be held accountable for their inaction, I would remind you that schools advertise they offer a safe and secure environment for learning, and that the courts have ruled that schools have a “special relationship with students” and do have a responsibility for safety. We can only ask you how can anyone justify not issuing a warning on April 16, 2007, when there were bloody footprints leading away from a double homicide in the middle of the campus? Furthermore, earlier the school had:
· Issued a campus-wide warning when a convict, William Morva, escaped from a Blacksburg jail and killed two people and there was no evidence Morva was on campus.
· Issued a campus-wide warning about measles.
· Issued a campus-wide warning about mold in the library. (Is it believable that the presence of mold spores reaches the threshold for a campus-wide alert, yet a double homicide does not?)
· Issued a campus-wide warning about mumps.
· Issued a campus-wide warning about a bomb threat even though the school knew it was probably false. The warning was issued several times, on several different days.
The Peterson and Pryde families must have been devastated as they listened to Steger, Hincker, and Flinchum parse words; twist and turn the events of April 16, 2007; admit to errors and testify that they saw no need to warn their students. No wonder Erin Peterson’s father broke down sobbing in the courtroom. University authorities thought to warn the trash collectors and stop garbage collection; they thought to stop bank pick-ups and deliveries; the school of veterinary medicine locked its doors; the Blacksburg schools locked down—but Steger, Hincker, and Flinchum didn’t think to issue a warning that might have saved Erin’s life.
At the heart of the Pryde and Peterson lawsuit was the contention that if university officials had warned the campus promptly following the earlier shootings, the young women would have taken precautions, altering their schedules. The lawyers for the Pryde and Peterson families pointed out that the school found time to contact the governor to report one student dead, another injured, and a gunman on the loose, but couldn’t find the time to alert the campus.
"Our daughters and the other students and faculty were entitled to that information, too, and would be alive today if that information had been shared," the parents' lawyer, Bob Hall, said in a statement on behalf of the Prydes and Petersons. "All we've been looking for is accountability."
On Wednesday, March 14, 2012, the jury agreed with Hall and held Tech accountable. Hall welcomed the jury’s decision and its award of $4 million to each family, an amount that was later reduced to $100,000 each—the cap in civil cases against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The money means nothing to the two families. Celeste Peterson told the court that she has kept her daughter’s things in a closet. Sometimes she goes in there and sits on the floor so she can touch the things that Erin once touched.
Celeste Peterson said her daughter made her want to be a better person. Erin once asked her parents why she couldn’t help everyone who needed help. Once again a decent, loving human being has been sacrificed on the altar of incompetence. In her memory, the Petersons have set up a nonprofit fund to give college scholarships to high school students—most of the students who have received the scholarships have gone to Virginia Tech.
Every day Karen Pryde remembers her thoughtful, caring, and loving daughter. She remembers how supportive Julia was of her friends and her involvement in numerous projects to support children’s and environmental causes. She remembers how much Julia loved Virginia Tech and how thrilled she was with the Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) department. Julia was concerned about the world around her and wanted to do something about bringing clean water to everyone. She had gone to South America on a school project for clean water and the trip made her even more determined to make a difference. Each year since her death, Julia K. Pryde memorial scholarships have been awarded to Virginia Tech graduate students in the BSE department for work projects abroad with an emphasis on water purity projects abroad in underdeveloped countries.
Karen Pryde often thinks about her wonderful daughter who was focused and independent from her earliest childhood. As a toddler Julia refused to take those first tentative single steps when it was time to learn to walk. She simply started out running.
Karen Pryde remembers Julia’s determination. When her brother Keith was four years old, he was enrolled in swimming lessons at the local swim club. Julia wanted to join but because she was three did not meet the minimum age requirement. She threw a fit and within a couple of years showed them—Julia won her first swim race at age five by half the length of the pool and was named MVP for her age group four times.
Julia could be withdrawn, but not when it came to sports. She was athletic and coordinated and excelled in whatever sport she took on, but her mother remembers that what you could not forget about her was how she encouraged and cheered her teammates on—she was a team player in the truest and best sense of the words. Hers was the whistle, the yell—the words of encouragement you could hear above the rest. She played center forward and goalie in soccer; pitcher, infielder, and catcher in softball and was often the anchor for the swim club, the Y, and her high school swim teams. After her murder, her friends and classmates told Karen and Harry Pryde how much Julia had meant to them; how much her words of encouragement had pushed them to do their best.
Julia’s determination was not limited to sports, it extended into her academic life. She was bright and demanded excellence of herself and others. In junior high Julia had a math teacher who was past her prime and not really up to dealing with the challenges of her very bright class. Julia complained, but her parents did not see there was anything that could be done—you just suffer through the teacher you have. Wrong. Julia went to her advisor and stated her case on behalf of the whole class. Her advisor could do nothing. Undeterred, Julia marched into the principal’s office and told him what was happening. The teacher ended up retiring early. Julia’s mom and dad were a little awed by what their precocious daughter had done and that she had shown the courage of her convictions at such a young age—and took action.
When time came for Julia to go to college, she knew what she wanted and her school was in Blacksburg, Virginia. Julia would apply for early admission to Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, and that was it, end of discussion.
Julia started as a computer science major but during her freshman year she was required to take a course that exposed her to all sorts of engineering possibilities. She discovered what was to become her major and her passion—Biological Systems Engineering.
As Julia’s first year at Tech drew to a close, she looked for ways to help pay for college and enhance her love of the environment and the outdoors. She found it in a scholarship program with the Student Conservation Association and headed out to Idaho to learn to be a wildland firefighter. That first year she returned to live in south Jersey, building nature trails while waiting impatiently to be called upon to help fight fires. Her chance did not come until the next year. After more training she was sent to an American Indian reservation in North Dakota to record dwellings as part of emergency planning when she got the call to report to Arizona to help with a very large fire there. She and her teammates were thrilled; her parents, less so. Karen Pryde was not happy with her daughter being in harm’s way. But today, every time Karen Pryde sees a report of a wild fire burning out of control, she wishes her daughter were there pursuing her dreams and her goal in life.
At a memorial service held at Julia’s high school, a school friend reminded Karen Pryde of one of Julia’s special acts of kindness. She had gone to New York City with friends and a homeless man came up to her and asked for money. She responded by saying, “Sorry, I don’t have any.” The man then asked for a cigarette. Again Julia responded, “I don’t smoke.” At that, the man turned and walked away. Julia went after him and tapped him on the shoulder; when he turned around she put her arms around him and said, “I can give you a hug.” The homeless man was overcome and responded, “That is just what I needed.”
Karen Pryde remembers vividly her daughter telling her the story of the homeless man. She also remembers cautioning her that she should not have done that. Julia just chuckled and shook her head and gave her mom one of those “you don’t understand, mom” looks. Every time Karen Pryde tells the story she just wishes that Cho had met Julia and experienced her compassion and concern for her fellow human beings—especially those less fortunate than her. Perhaps none of this would have happened. (To be continued)