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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Could It Have Been Prevented?

The young man who killed himself and so many of his fellows at Virginia Tech this week had been sent for psychiatric evaluation several times during his almost four years at the school, according to the head of the school's counseling service. At least twice, he had been labeled a danger to himself and others.

He wouldn't accept counseling, and you can't make him.

He did not violate the school's code of behavior, according to the dean. Two women students complained to the dean about letters Cho sent them. Apparently that blew over. He didn't commit any crimes. Although it's reported that some students were so upset by him that they dropped out of classes if he was also enrolled, you can't expel someone for being weird. If you could even define that. Some students were reportedly afraid of him. But he didn't step over the line in behavior.

He was due to graduate in a few weeks. Apparently he kept up his marks.

His writings for his English classes often described violence, murder, suicide. So did the writings of his classmates. English teachers teach writing, and they expect their students to grapple with the conditions of society. Cho was a Korean-American, living here since the age of eight, and educated here entirely.

Can a student be expelled for his thoughts, for being a loner, for being unpopular, for flat affect, for mental ill health? Not in the absence of behaviors that meet certain criteria. Can a person be incarcerated or committed because he might someday hurt himself or others? Not in the absence of behaviors that meet certain criteria.

Interventions are often made by schools, family and friends to convince a troubled person that he or she needs help. Many people do accept help. Others may drop out of the school, may stay out of the way of authorities. They may or may not fashion lives of happiness and work.

I want to believe that this terrible thing could have been prevented. Our nation will be analyzing the circumstances for years, along with similar horrors, to try to prevent future slaughter. In the past, society has sometimes multiplied horror in the effort to prevent it, by means such as involuntary sterilization, castration, lobotomy, internment camps, and prisons that increase crime. I hope at least one good thing can come out of this.

The governor of Virginia says it is time now to be with the survivors in grief.

In sorrow.