Friday, April 20, 2007

Columbine Anniversary

It’s eight years ago today that the word Columbine became embedded in the collective psyche following the mass murder of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School by two male students. VT shooter Cho mentioned the Columbine shooters in his video recorded rant. In both shootings faculty members were killed. In both shootings there were written warnings by the shooters. However, from what I can tell, the Columbine shooters never submitted any threats or disguised threats as part of their school work. Cho did.

Many have now seen extracts from the two plays that Cho wrote. They are described by professors and classmates as disturbing. What should the professor do in such a case? In this case a lot was done. A CNN staff writer notes:

"Lucinda Roy, the former chairwoman of the English Department, told CNN that one of Cho's creative writing professors brought his writings to her attention. Roy was so disturbed by them she went to the police and counselors "and everywhere else, and they would say, but there's nothing explicit here. He's not actually saying he's going to kill someone.""The threats seemed to be underneath the surface," she said. "They were not explicit and that was the difficulty the police had." "My argument was that he seemed so disturbed that we needed to do something about this," Roy said." (

I have had a look at Cho’s plays. While there’s no doubt that the anger and rage is apparent, both involve boys being sexually molested and wanting to kill the perpetrator. It is not the sort of thing I would find myself going to the police over were I the professor involved.

Few people remember that back in December 2000, a 15 year old boy from the Cornwall area was arrested and spent 34 days in Jail including Christmas, New Year’s and his 16th birthday because of a story that he wrote about blowing up his school. Similarly, in February 2005, an 18 year old student in Kentucky, William Poole, was arrested for writing a story about a gang of Zombies taking over his high school. Zombies!

Clearly, these are over reactions. Yet, had Cho been arrested because of the concerns of his professors, what could possibly have come of it? One can be charged with uttering threats. Would that ultimately make any difference? Would Cho have learned his lesson? I read an interesting article in Slate, on Harris and Klebold. Pyschological experts speculated that without Columbine, Klebold may have gone on to live a normal life. Harris, on the other hand was a psychopath who would have continued to commit and perfect his crimes; catching him early (and his blog revealed significant hate) would have done nothing. So what is a prof to do?

At best, the profs at VT can say they took every precaution reasonable in the circumstances. And from an occupational health and safety law perspective that is what is required of an employer. Certainly, one hates to think of the professor reading papers with a view to liability, but there is no doubt that this will cross the minds of educational administrators. This is especially true in light of the amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada which makes it a criminal offence for a supervisor to fail to take necessary steps to protect the life of a worker. If, as Lucinda Roy believed about Cho, a student was a possible danger to professors and other employees, then the supervisor would be criminally responsible if she didn't take steps to protect those workers. Warn them. Take the student out of the school. Take "reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm".

Presumably, the pyschopaths would soon learn that writing "disturbing" material would interfere with their plans and wouldn't write. Other, aspiring writers, emotionally disturbed in one way are another (and how many writers aren't?), however, would be arrested, or worse, would not even bother writing because of the threat of arrest and censorship by the state.

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