Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Ghosts of Virginia Tech

On April 16, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech University went on a shooting rampage and killed 32 people before completing his own suicide. Today, the records on the shooter from the Cook Counseling Center at Virginia Tech were released, with permission from his family. These records were apparently illegally removed from the center and only recently discovered at an employee's home.

What the school records show is that this student made some suicidal comments and gestures in 2005 and was hospitalized. They also indicate that he was not homicidal to the best of the Center's knowledge and that they did not believe him to be a current threat to himself or others, although he was depressed and having difficulty with the stress of college life.

I have every respect for the families and memories of those who died at Virginia Tech and for those who were traumatized by living through that experience. I also believe that lessons can and have been learned about campus safety and crisis communication at colleges. But I also have to question what end is now served by rehashing this man's psychiatric history.

As you frequent Quarterbackers all know, our minds go to blame very quickly when we are traumatized. We want someone to be at fault and we want them to have consequences. We want trauma to be preventable so we don't have to feel scared. And make no mistake about it, this shooting scared anyone who lives, works or knows anyone on a college campus.

At the same time, the person truly at fault here was the shooter. We can file lawsuits, change policies and stage inquiries, but human beings fundamentally have free will. Stopping someone who is hell bent on killing and who does not care if he dies too is always going to be devilishly hard. And what's more, no matter where we pin the blame, we will never know if someone doing things differently would have made any difference.

Let me say that again. We will never know if this shooter could have been stopped. In our quest for a feeling of safety and security and to place blame, we cannot achieve what we really want, which is to know this will never happen to anyone ever again. We are, again, reminded that there is no such thing as closure.

What I worry is that people looking back at records like these, knowing how the story ends, will want colleges and counselors and hospitals to clamp down on people who seem to be "like" this shooter. In the case of these particular records, that would probably mean mandatory counseling, hospitalization and/or expulsion for depressed college students who express suicidal ideation and seem to be having difficulty adjusting to college life. That's an awful lot of people, most of whom never go on shooting rampages or even have a psychiatric diagnosis. I count myself among them.

Something happened to this shooter between December of 2005 and April of 2007. We don't know what that was, really, and we can't ever know for sure. It may be that the system failed in this case, and it may be that this could have been prevented. But let's make sure, in our efforts to be more vigilant, that we don't wind up pegging everyone with a bad day as a killer.


Colleen said...

As I sit in the waiting room hearing the reports on the Pru Tower water main break, I'm thinking of the "proper" way to keep people updated. Are there newscaster conferences? Can groups like yours do classes specifically for newscasters to be part of the solution instead of a big problem? Or do they already, and the news people don't listen or show up?

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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