Thursday, April 19, 2007

Don't draw the wrong lessons from Virginia Tech's misfortune

What happened Monday at Virginia Tech was deplorable. I have nothing but concern for the students of that institution, and for their friends and family. Well, there is something else. They have my respect.

From everything I have read, not only did the students and faculty behave bravely while under attack, students and faculty had been as proactive as they could. Professors made a point of referring him for counseling and students tried to reach out to him. Seemingly, everyone recognized that he was greatly disturbed.

And that is what the news is focusing on. Mentally-ill person on campus! The evil ADA won't let schools and workplaces throw out the crazies! Virginia had just passed a law that colleges can't expell students simply for having a mental illness or seeking counseling. You know it's true and important, because the New York Times says so. Quick, everyone, jump on the Lock Away the Nutters bandwagon while there's still room! After all, we just can't ever know which one of them will "snap."

I suggest that the NYT take a deep breath and consider the real problem. The real problem? How about that Cho had been picked up for stalking two women? That he had been tossed out of class for taking inappropriate videos of female classmates and intimidating them? Yes, Cho had committed crimes which were all the justification VT would have needed to expell him. So why didn't they? Apparently, no charges were filed, the girls involved being simply relieved to put distance between themselves and him. Did they get any encouragement from VT to file charges? I'm guessing the answer to that is "no." One campus counselor is quoted as saying "It is very difficult to predict when what someone perceives as stalking, is stalking." And the hospital that ultimately evaluated Cho as posing a danger to others also let him go.

In the light of recent blogosphere talk about Kathy Sierra and the Imus incident, I would hope more people are alert to the degree to which threats against women are blown off as irrelevant, with women being advised to simply grow a thicker skin. What if, instead of considering Cho's actions toward women as vague and not worth follow-up, VT had been encouraged and allowed by law to expell Cho and press charges for repeated intimidation?

OK, you're not convinced. You really don't care if a few, or even many, women are made to fear for their lives by a creepy guy who stalks them and takes unauthorized pictures up their skirts.

How about that he was an arsonist? What was wrong with VT's administration or, perhaps, its police department, that it didn't act immediately to have a fire bug removed?

The point is, we don't need to abandon recent efforts at inclusion and de-stigmatizing of people with mental illness. What we need is to take violent crime seriously, and understand that violent crime does indeed include intimidation, stalking, and arson. They aren't youthful errors. They aren't jokes. They aren't just little things that should be ignored. They are steps on a ladder of violent escalation.

I hope that all colleges will learn from this, not that mentally ill people are dangerous, but that crime is dangerous.

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