- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Blessed am I to never have lost a loved one to a random act of violence such as the unthinkable tragedy that claimed the lives of 33 people, including the shooter, on the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech one year ago.

I do know people who were working or studying at the campus last April 16, including a young cousin, a drama and psychology major. I am not sure I could accept $100,000 as compensation for his life had he lost it, as grieving parents have been asked to do by the state.

When the candles are lit and words of condolences and encouragement are uttered tomorrow, my heart will go out to the parents, friends and family members who survived this most difficult year. They, too, deserve commendation.

We would do well to honor the memory of these victims by making productive changes from the lessons learned.

None of the 27 students and five faculty members mercilessly killed that morning when the snow was falling and the bullets were flying needs to have died in vain. We cannot forget the 26 students who were injured but survived, either.

Surely, Virginia Tech officials provided new safety standards and alert procedures that have been copied on campuses nationwide. The immediate debates about gun control and bullying have netted far less productive results.

Last year, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said, “It is difficult to comprehend senseless violence on this scale.” Last week, he said, “It has been a difficult year, but it has been a year where people haven’t [shrunk] from trying to learn and improve.” The student killer, Seung-hui Cho, as we all know by now, had a history of mental illness problems, some treated, but he was able to legally purchase weapons and slipped through the mental health system, mainly for lack of documentation or follow-up.

Mr. Kaine signed a package of bills approved by the General Assembly that authorized funding that likely will increase treatment services to those with mental illness.

The 26 new measures means more people can be involuntarily committed to mental health facilities given the lowered threshold for placement. With the help of family members or guardians, the new criteria may provide patients with the long-term treatment they have needed for years.

Mr. Kaine added $41.7 million, for a total of $77 billion authorized by the General Assembly, to fund mental health programs over the next two years that will pay for staffing and emergency psychiatric services also designed to keep mentally ill people from incarceration.

These actions represent a commendable beginning in a state that was far behind in dealing with the mentally ill and criminally insane.

Mental illness is not a character flaw or curse, but one reason people do not acknowledge it or seek assistance is the stigma associated with it, which only serves to exacerbate their problems.

Some question the lack of privacy rights of patients under the new measures. Others disagree, especially in light of the massacres at Virginia Tech and at Northern Illinois University just 10 months later.

“If a student is a danger to himself or others, all the privacy concerns go out the window,” Patricia Terrell, vice president of student affairs at the University of Kentucky, said in a March Yahoo article.

She created “threat assessment groups” at the university whereby a panel of school administrators, faculty, police and mental health professionals monitor students who have exhibited “strange or disturbing” behavior.

This report indicates that other schools, including Virginia Tech, are adopting “threat assessment teams” and other watchful practices.

The new Virginia laws supposedly will make it more difficult for the mentally ill to purchase weapons — that is if they apply for purchase at a gun store. However, the General Assembly was unable to pass simple legislation to close the gap for purchase of firearms at gun shows. Shoring up the purchase process does not infringe on anyone’s right to own guns.

Our culture glorifies and promotes amoral behavior, and it is more mind-boggling that adults, including all manner of experts, have missed the connections and not been able to figure out what makes our angry children harbor so much hate and hurt that they resort to killing as an outlet for their inability to cope.

Until we can solve the mysteries that produce horrific massacres like the one at Virginia Tech, we are doomed to commemorate more bloody anniversaries.

It’s too late for Cho and his Virginia Tech victims, but maybe others will be spared.

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