It was a typical week for me: I received e-mail notes from faculty at other institutions, describing the challenges as they try to respond to troubled students. Even when faculty receive support from their department chairs and deans, dealing with those students can take dozens of hours, sap their energy, and, in some cases, terrify them.
It was a depressingly familiar week in another way: an attack at a campus of Lone Star Community College, in Texas. This time the weapon of choice was a knife. The suspect, a student at the college, injured 14, two critically, before being apprehended.
Six days after that came the Boston Marathon bombings. On the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth campus, FBI investigators later found a "large pyrotechnic" in the dorm room of the 19-year-old suspect in the bombings, once again demonstrating the vulnerability of college campuses and the ease with which students can bring weapons onto them.
Now, six years after the attack at Virginia Tech, and four months after the heartbreaking carnage at Sandy Hook, the country is at last waking up to the idea that we have a recurring problem. Inspired by the courageous families of victims, state legislatures in Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have passed much tougher gun-control laws, although even modest gun-control legislation has failed to pass at the federal level.
On another front, funds have been set aside for mental health. Last month Congress approved $2.75-million for a new National Center for Campus Public Safety, which will provide research, training, and best practices to colleges.
Those are important steps in the right direction. But six years after the worst campus attack in American history, are classrooms really less vulnerable?
I imagine what would happen were Seung-Hui Cho to enter my office at Virginia Tech today exhibiting the same behavior and affect, and writing the same angry poems as he did in 2005. He would be wearing his sunglasses indoors, his baseball cap pulled low over his head. He would speak in a whisper.
It would still be difficult to obtain long-term help for him. This isn't because support personnel and administrators at Virginia Tech would be unresponsive. In fact, even in 2005, when the English department reported Cho to the counseling center and various campus authorities, almost all those we spoke with did their best to be helpful.
These days we do have more resources than before: a threat-assessment team, whose members include law enforcement and mental-health professionals; a better-staffed campus counseling center—although, like most such centers, it is still expected to do far too much with far too little. (There is roughly one counselor for every 1,750 students at Virginia Tech. When the English department reported Cho, the ratio was 1 to 2,700. Experts recommend that the ratio of counselors to students be 1 to 1,500.)