For a short period of time the jury’s decision holding Tech accountable appeared to be important far beyond giving the two families some sense of justice. First, the verdict sent a strong message to colleges and universities that they do have a special relationship with students, faculty, and staff, and the relationship involves safety.
Second, the level of accountability had been raised. Institutions of higher learning would now be expected to do something about specific manifestations of mental illness and threats of violence from students or employees and if they did not take preventive measures, they would be held responsible for the violence that might result. If nothing else, the Pryde and Peterson families, for a few short months, could take some solace in the fact that colleges and universities would now be under a microscope when it comes to campus safety.
On October 31, 2013, however, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a decision reversing the Montgomery County Circuit Court jury trial verdict that found Virginia Tech negligent for not warning the campus on the morning of April 16, 2007. The decision appears to be politically motivated and is a skillful manipulation of facts, evidence, and language. Most troubling of all is the fact that the Court gave Tech a pass in a decision that is badly flawed and leaves the parents of students on the campuses of Virginia’s schools with next to no legal recourse if their son or daughter is wounded or killed as a result of incompetence on the part of people in positions of authority.
Judge Cleo E. Powell wrote the decision. Judge Powell is considered to be one of the more conservative judges on the Virginia Supreme Court. Her poorly written narrative is especially troubling because she claims the court bases its decision on facts, yet she has some facts wrong and ignores others. In the opening paragraph she writes:
“In this case, we hold even if there was a special relationship between the Commonwealth and students of Virginia Tech, under the facts of this case, there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties.”
This sentence is a cynical and insidious in the way it plays with English syntax. The above sentence is intentionally vague. Under the rules of standard English, for conditional sentences you are to use “was” if what you are saying is factually correct; you are to use “were” if what you are saying is not factually correct. When I say, “If I were the King of England, I would give everyone a Bentley” I use “were” because I am not the King of England. In the Virginia Tech case, Judge Powell, by using “was” is admitting that a special relationship did and does exist between Virginia Tech and its students. Judge Powell should have used a straightforward, declarative, active voice sentence if she wanted her meaning to be clear, but apparently she needed to leave herself some wiggle room.
One of the arguments the state has made in the past is that a special relationship did not exist. Clearly, Judge Powell wanted to play a game with the readers and decided to admit that fact, but used a sentence structure that obscured this critical point. In fact, Judge Powell, in her attempt to obscure, may have set a legal precedent that Virginia Tech (and by implication all educational institutions in the state) has a special relationship with its students. Instead of playing grammar games, Judge Powell should have, at minimum, had the moral courage to be candid in asserting that a special relationship does exist, and then argue why the Virginia Tech massacre is an exception. (To be continued)