Spree Killer’s Teacher’s Mea Culpa. Or Not.

 Lucinda Roy (courtesy lucindaroy.net)

“I dreaded meeting with Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho in fall 2005,” former Virginia Tech prof Lucinda Roy writes at insidehighered.com. “Though he had not made overt threats, his manner and affect seemed to be at odds with his whispered claim that he was being satirical when he wrote an accusatory poem about his classmates. But I was serving as chair of the English department at the time so it was my responsibility to deal with troubled students.” Well we all know how that turned out. In fact, Professor Roy has a bad case of survivor’s guilt. She’s determined to show that there was nothing—nothing—she could have done to stop Cho’s murderous rampage . . .

I knew Cho could carry whatever he wanted in the backpack he planted emphatically at his feet when he sat down in my office. I knew his silence could be the silence of excruciating shyness or the kind designed to be menacing. There were times when his anger seemed palpable; his agony vengeful; his misogyny apparent.

At what point, however, does a professor draw a weapon? In her office? In a packed classroom? When the student-suspect reaches down to get something from his backpack? At what point does a perceived threat become an actual one? How many mistakes are we liable to make, and at what cost? How often will we be tempted to demonize difference because it scares us?

Wow. That’s quite a leap: from counseling a troubled student to capping his ass. But that’s how antis make their arguments: reductio ad absurdumAnd she’s just getting warmed-up.

Were Cho to have stormed into my office, guns blazing, wearing his customary blank expression, his sunglasses and baseball cap obscuring his face, what good would a gun have done unless I already had it at the ready? If he had been armed with a 9mm Glock — one of the weapons he used 18 months later in his attack on a dorm room and classrooms at Virginia Tech — would I have needed a semiautomatic as powerful as his to have had a chance of defending myself and my staff? If he’d had about 300 bullets, as he’d had when he launched his attack on the campus, would I have needed a similar cache in my office drawer?

Should teachers’ guns remain loaded in their desks at all times, or should they be carried in handbags or holsters? Many of these weapons are heavy and difficult to conceal. How would teachers disguise the fact that they are packing heat from their students? How often would a nervous teacher misinterpret someone’s gesture and discover, too late, that it isn’t a gun he’s pulling out from his backpack after all? It’s the novel he’s written and wants her to read.

Holy trigger-happy teacher Batman! No old chum, that’s called projection. Well whatever you call it, how could someone be that ignorant about the basic principles of self-defense that are based on . . . wait for it . . . common sense.

Common sense also tells us that Virginia Tech’s failure to move against a known threat—an “oversight” for which they paid $11m—was their first mistake. Or maybe it was creating a campus-wide gun-free (a.k.a., killing) zone? Roy refuses to accept responsibility for the former and can’t imagine a world without the latter.

College professors and K-12 teachers are not law enforcement officers. It’s our responsibility to notice students who are seriously troubled and bring them to the attention of professionals trained to respond in crisis situations, which is why I reported Seung Hui-Cho to various units on campus. In cases where there is no record of violence, however, even the most experienced teachers, counselors, and law enforcement personnel cannot easily predict whether or not a threat is imminent. But we can detect extreme anguish, consuming loneliness, and unbridled anger in young people and try to intervene before these become toxic.

The opportunity for meaningful intervention on the part of educators is in the years, months, and days before the gun is drawn. And though some of us will try and fail, the period leading up to a tragedy like this is still the time when peaceful intervention is most likely to succeed.

A lone teacher should never be asked by the NRA or anyone else to use a lethal weapon to save her students. The chance of failure is far too high, the cost far too great. Teachers and students must be empowered by society to learn together in peace. We have a right to expect this, and a duty, as educators, to demand it.

Demand that society “empowers students to live in peace” (whatever the hell that means). Demand a plan to “end gun violence.”

The civilian disarmament industry—Roy’s written No Right to Remain Silent: What We’ve Learned from the Tragedy at Virginia Tech—can demand any damn thing they like. But when push comes to shove and someone needs to protect their life and the lives of their charges against a lethal threat, a gun is what they need. Period.