A week ago, the Virginia Tech family and the greater public knew little about the largest mass shooting in the US except the shock of it. Since then, details about the killer and the circumstances have emerged. They naturally prompt questions about preventing future tragedies.
In Washington, a Congress that has been far too silent on gun control is taking a second look at the issue of background checks. College administrators are planning a summit on security. And Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine, a Democrat, has appointed an independent panel to review the handling of the calamity.
Lawmakers and college administrators would be remiss if they did not see Virginia Tech as an opportunity to reexamine issues and policies – especially in three key areas: troubled students, campus safety, and gun violence.
Troubled Students. In the past decade, many more students with serious mental-health problems have arrived on college campuses. Treatment, parental awareness, and the Americans with Disabilities Act have broadened their horizons.
Federal and state laws restrict administrators' ability to respond to students with mental challenges. These laws are intended to protect students from the stigma and discrimination associated with these problems, and to allow them privacy to work past or manage such illness.
But the flip side of these laws is that, unless a student is found to be a danger, they can leave unchecked a case such as that of Cho Seung-hui – the disturbed senior who killed 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty and then himself on April 16.
Virginia Tech professors, students, campus police, and a judge had concerns about Mr. Cho, but a doctor who examined him found him only depressed – not a danger – and the university did not follow up afterward. A way needs to be found to better weigh warning signs, privacy, and common sense. And colleges should seek to set up a single place for reporting concerns so that they can better assess and track cases of disturbed students.
Campus security. Colleges are open communities that need to strike a balance between freedom and security. They're relatively safe places and, in recent years, have taken such measures as restricting dorm entry with electronic pass keys.
One of the frustrations expressed by the Virginia Tech president was the inability to alert students already en route to class. The Association of College Administration Professionals is wise to focus on mass emergency notification at a security summit.
Gun control. Cho obtained his two handguns legally. But, in hindsight, it's plain that this disturbed individual should not have been allowed to buy guns. Perhaps that explains why the National Rifle Association is now negotiating with senior Democrats in Congress to bolster the national background-check system.
With an average of about 81 people a day killed by guns in the US, this issue is much, much bigger than Virginia Tech. That Congress has allowed the assault-weapons ban to expire and that it refuses to track gun sales in a way that would pinpoint dealers selling to criminals, shows a greater concern for the gun lobby than for the American public. This is one area of review that shouldn't stop with the specifics of Virginia Tech. •