Thursday, April 19, 2007

Professors saw danger in Cho Seung-Hui: "This shows you how powerless we are"

From the New York Times: Despite Mr. Cho's time in the mental health system, when an English professor was disturbed by his writings last fall and contacted the associate dean of students, the dean told the professor that there was no record of any problems and that nothing could be done, said the instructor, Lisa Norris.

That makes at least three professors, including the renowned poet Nikki Giovanni, who complained to higher-ups at Virginia Tech about the odd behavior of Cho Seung-Hui. Giovanni was disturbed enough by Cho, whom she described in several TV interviews as a "mean boy," to say "him or me," threatening to resign her position at the university if he wasn't removed from her classroom. In a writing class with 35 students enrolled, Cho and his writings were sufficiently terrifying to reduce in-class participation to just seven kids by mid-term, said Giovanni. The solution by the VT English department--and this gets me where I live--was to take Cho out of Giovanni's class and ask Lucinda Roy, another writing prof, to teaching him one-on-one in her office.

Roy has said in several interviews this week that she was afraid to be alone with Cho. She, too, tried to alert administrators about his scary strangeness. "He was a ghost," she said. "He was the loneliest person I'd ever seen."

Despite the warnings by these professors, nobody did anything to remove Cho from the classrooms of Virginia Tech.

Teach for a few years and you get a strong intuition about the crazy ones. You see it in their eyes, their posture, the way they dress, talk, walk, smell--and in what they write.

You've seen by now the dark writings of Cho Seung-Hui. The 10-page plays, typed in perfect script format with razor-sharp margins, detailing violence that makes Macbeth look like Ugly Betty. And the strangely illustrated "manifesto" sent by Cho to NBC News between the first and second shootings on Monday.

Look at his writing and you know that this was a bright guy--mentally imbalanced but highly intelligent. He somehow had been a good enough student to make it to his senior year at VT, no doubt shoved along by an English department eager to get him out the door and off the campus.

It's a common strategy for dealing with troubled and troubling students: Just get 'em through the department. Do whatever it takes, but don't cause problems or invite legal hassles by leaning too hard on him. Is he still paying his tuition? Then just deal with it. He'll be gone next year. Shut up and deal with it.

We've all encountered the weird kid whose oddness raised the small hairs on the back of our necks. I've had my share. It was the mentally unbalanced girls who caused the most problems in my classes. Like "Layla," the girl who never wrote one word during a semester in my writing class. She never turned in a single assignment. But she would waylay me in my office for four or five hours at a time, telling me what she wanted to write and why she couldn't. She told me she was under the care of three shrinks and had spent time in several expensive institutions back in her home state. She spun wildly untruthful tales about her family: Her father was a pilot, he was a mercenary in Iraq, he was a homeless drug addict who would disappear for months and years at a time. She said her mother had terminal lung cancer, then would tell me a few days later that her mother was remarried to a wealthy businessman and spent her days playing tennis at a country club and didn't care what happened with her kids. Layla was skilled at storytelling; too bad she didn't write them down.

One day Layla came to class wearing in-line skates. She jumped up on the table and took off her t-shirt while ranting some nonsense about being a champion skater in the Olympics. The class went into shock. I got a student to help me get her off the table (I was afraid she'd fall and break her neck) and I don't really remember what happened next.

She stopped coming to class for a few weeks. Then she popped up back in my office, offering to give me $1000 cash if I would give her a passing grade in the course. She pulled a wad of hundreds out of her backpack and shoved the money across the desk. "Take it," she said. "I have more if you want it." (I didn't touch it, of course.)

I tried to get help for Layla. I told the head of my department about her. I tried to call her campus adviser, the heads of the student advising center, the counseling center and the health center. I never even got a call back. I left emails, voicemails and hand-delivered notes asking for callbacks. Nothing. Nobody wanted to hear it.

And when I never saw Layla again, I couldn't get anyone to tell me if she'd dropped out, gone home or what. She was just gone. To get some much-needed help, I hoped.

A teacher-friend and I were talking this week about the Virginia Tech tragedy and all the professors who tried to warn others that this sick young man was trouble. "This shows you how powerless we are," said my friend. She told me several stories about students who'd frightened her with violent or abusive behavior. In one instance, she couldn't even get the campus police to walk her to her car. There was only one "officer" assigned to campus that day and he wasn't available.

Yes, we are the phantom warning system, sending up flares that get ignored and sounding alarms that nobody wants to hear. And when something happens, we have every right to say we told you so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was really interesting to me, because I blogged about the same issue - every professor I know has a story that is eerily similar.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously this was an extreme case, but isn't this what many in our society want in terms of "personal freedom", and the ability to do our own thing? I am speaking of Cho's behavior prior to shooting people. If an attempt was made to cart off to a mental institution everybody that somebody thought was weird, unnerving, or strange, how long before the interest groups and nannies of the day would be in some judges chambers challenging the righteousness of the detention?

We celebrate the weirdos, the creative geniouses, and those somewhat off-kilter. Even Cho was OK until he started offing people.

If we could go back in time to Sunday, what would be the charge to hold Cho? He made somebody's skin crawl? He made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Please, what prosecutor, or mental health professional could have made such a case, before Cho did the deed? Aly McBeal would have gotten the guy out of a facility in time for Happy Hour down at the appropriately fashionable watering hole in Blacksburg.

We cannot start locking up weirdos, until they commit some overt act. Unfortunate for the victims, but who among us can, with one hundred percent certainty, predict whom will commit acts of violence against his fellow man?

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work in a prison and I get the sneaking suspicion that teachers do as well. Although you can't predict who will commit violent acts, it comes down to an assessment of risk, and Cho had all the signs of being a high risk to commit a violent act. The Administrators needed to do what most upper management don't want to do, and that is step out on a limb for the safety of their employees and students. Were off campus Police alerted of his stalking? I keep hearing the sound bites, this is a tragedy and what can we do, but how many times does this have to happen before someone actually does something about it? You can talk about the freedom to be different all you like, but odd behavior coupled with violent ideation is a huge red flag, and one that needs to stop being ignored. Aren't we tired of burying our children? Violence seems to be such a huge part of our society that we've learned to ignore the signs of trouble, because all the people in the business of making money out of the culture of violence says oh it's nothing, just fun. So when we see it, we think we're over reacting or infringing on the civil rights of, what later turn out to be seriously emotionally disturbed people. We've packaged and sold violence to our children in such large quantities, and have leaned on the the first amendment to do so, that now we are afraid to address the danger when it's clealy there. My heart goes out to the students and faculty of VT. All these lives with such promise, gone.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seung-Hui Cho
brilliance beyond thought
disconnected soul storming
magnified madness

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But can you do that in Mandarin?




4:17 PM  
Blogger David A. Carlson said...

"We cannot start locking up weirdos, until they commit some overt act."

Sure we can. And we used to do it all the time. We however have closed virtually all of those facilities and de-institutionalized virtually all mental health patients - and for good reason in many cases. However, that has left us with little to no recourse when there is a real threat to society.

"Unfortunate for the victims, but who among us can, with one hundred percent certainty, predict whom will commit acts of violence against his fellow man?"

One of the stupidist, yet common arguements. No where in our society do we actually apply that rule. We establish criteria and establish a process to evaluate and committ. Our criteria and process used to commit far too many people - thus the reaction to the system which was basically to shut it down. Leaving us in the postion of having clearly dangerous people out in society because institutionalization is "bad"

We need to get somewhere between the two, acknowledge that all systems are imperfect, and do our best to protect society as well as the individual.

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