When Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui
Cho fired his last bullet on April 16,
2007, he became the 33rd casualty in
what has rightly been called the worst
school shooting in our nation’s history.
In the ensuing days, the country stood
in disbelief. Virginia Tech professors,
students, associates of the shooter and
psychologists offered hours of perspective
but could impart no real answers.
Even today, the biggest mystery behind
this mass execution is its perpetrator.
Emotionally removed from
family, detached from fellow students
and indifferent to professors, Cho was
disillusioned and deadly.
Though his actions seemed to rip the
country from a post-Columbine slumber,
there have been at least 26 high school
or college shootings since Eric Harris
and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and
wounded 24 others back in 1999. Sadly,
it’s an issue that is ever present.
A History of Violence
On the morning of August 1, 1966,
Charles Whitman, 25, rose early. He
threw on a pair of jeans and a green
jacket and loaded up his car, bound
for the University of Texas at Austin.
After lugging a trunk of artillery to
the observation deck of the university’s
main tower, Whitman assembled his
weapons and began shooting indiscriminately,
killing 14 people and
wounding 31 others before being shot
dead by police.
As one of the first widely publicized
school shooters in the country,
Whitman started a tragic tradition.
According to the National Center
for Education Statistics, a division of the
U.S. Department of Education’s Institute
of Education Sciences, there were
over 30 school-related violent deaths in
this country between July of 1999 and
June of 2000.
In 1999–2000, 20 percent of all public
schools reported violent crimes such
as rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated
assault. In 2003, five percent
of students ages 12-18 said they were
victims of violence. Seventy-one percent
of public schools reported violent incidents
and 46 percent reported thefts.
This much we know. What isn’t clear
is how to spot a burgeoning on-campus
killer. Seung-Hui Cho was aloof and
angry, but showed no early signs of violence.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold
were outsiders to many classmates but
they were not completely antisocial.
Charles Whitman was troubled but
nothing suggested he was capable of
an act so brutal.
According to a 2002 study by the
U.S. Secret Service and the Department
of Education, there is no way of knowing
who can become violent.
“The demographic, personality,
school history and social characteristics
of the attackers varied substantially,”
the report states.
The fact that professors and students
at Virginia Tech weren’t entirely sure
how to categorize Cho worked to his advantage.
Prior to April 16, he was menacing
enough to arouse suspicion but
stayed within the boundaries of the law
long enough to map out the killings.
Precautions, in the aftermath of Virginia
Tech, are all the more essential.
According to Scott Poland, Ed.D.,
N.C.S.P., of the National Association
of School Psychologists (NASP) (www.nasponline.org), schools can establish
ways to prepare students and teachers
in the event of violent outbreaks:
• Provide information to staff and
parents on talking with students about
• Institute stress-management and
• Offer classroom discussions on safety
and tolerance; and
• Supply information on recognizing
students who experience stress, anxiety
or mental-health problems.
The National Youth Violence Prevention
Resource Center (www.safeyouth.org) asks students to take proactive
measures in ensuring school safety. Suggestions
are to pay attention to odd or
threatening behavior, avoid carrying
weapons and learn about argument resolution
The Web site also suggests that students
get involved in their community,
engage in sports or become mentors.
A sense of belonging could be a remedy.
One factor that unites the Virginia
Tech, Columbine and University of
Texas shooters was a state of isolation.
One wonders if prolonged loneliness
bred their desperation.
To the annoyance of many students, it’s
that time of the year again. Millions
across the country will be starting
school this month. One who is looking
forward to it is my three-year-old niece,
Rory. At the mention of impending
preschool, her eyes widen and a smile
splashes across her pretty face.
Rory is far too young to grasp the
weight of school violence, but she’s
hardly exempt from it, even at such
an age. In 2000, Michigan first-grader
Kayla Rolland died from a single gunshot
wound to the chest from a fellow
six-year-old during class. It is a problem
that impinges on students of every age.
On the NASP Web site, Dr. Poland reminds
us that school violence destroys,
among many things, the noble pursuit
of knowledge. “Any student who is
experiencing fears or anxieties is a student
who is not learning,” he writes.
The NASP feels this issue has not yet
reached epidemic proportions, but even
one school shooting is simply one too
So in light of this violent and unpredictable
era, perhaps the most important
lesson our children can learn is
veneration for life. Dodging bullets has
no place in any curriculum.—C.H.