PUBLIC SQUARE: TECH MASSACRE
Richmond-area residents try to draw lessons from shootings at Virginia Tech
BY WILL JONES AND OLYMPIA MEOLA
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITERS
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Virginia Tech alumnus Bob Magee returned to his alma mater this week, reaching out in the midst of the tragedy wrenching the school he left in 1964.
The feelings that flooded him on the Drillfield were indescribable, he said. "Heavy is the only word I can come up with. It was the eeriest and saddest feeling I've ever had in my life."
Magee was among about 40 people who attended last night's Richmond Times-Dispatch Public Square, which attempted to draw lessons from the April 16 shooting rampage in Blacksburg, the deadliest in modern U.S. history.
In addition to killing 32 students and faculty members, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho injured 15 other students before taking his own life.
Last night's session started with a moment of silence in honor of the victims, followed by attendees sharing questions they would like answered about the shootings.
* How can we better educate the public about mental illness?
* What would other schools do in the same situation?
* How can we make a more cohesive connection between law enforcement and mental-health officials?
* Why are Virginia's gun-purchase laws more relaxed than federal laws, and why not limit the amount of ammunition people can buy?
"If we accept things as they are, this is the price we will pay periodically," said Chris Hartnett of Midlothian.
Several people questioned the role of gun safety in the overall debate. Two attendees suggested that the price of ammunition be increased or a limit be placed on the quantity someone could purchase. Al Moore of Mechanicsville stressed the people's right to bear arms.
June Hazlehurst of Richmond countered by asking what would have happened on campus that day if more students and professors had been armed?
"It just doesn't make sense to arm people," she said. "It doesn't make people any safer. It doesn't make me feel any safer."
Rick Curry, a Tech alumnus, said there must be an answer between no guns and everybody toting a gun. If you have a campus of 26,000 students, and everyone is armed, and a few gunshots are heard, he said, "you know what's going to happen? Thirty people's going to look minor."
Curry, who said he is among about 12,000 Tech alumni in the Richmond area, called the school community a family.
"I spent last week on such an emotional roller coaster," he said. "For us older alums . . . it's a very emotional attachment. Your family has been violated."
The tragedy struck people in many different ways, according to the sentiments expressed by the audience.
Sandra Brooks of Richmond said prayer needs to go back in the school system. "Silence is good, but the children need to know they are empowered," she said.
Hartnett said God was at Tech that day, manifested by the professors who had the courage to stand up to the shooter.
Christine Golding, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, said since the shooting she has wondered where she should sit in class. She said if she sits by the door, she could escape more quickly if there was a problem, but she could also be the first to be attacked if a gunman burst in.
"It's now hitting way too close to home for me," she said.
The idea of early help for students who may be troubled also generated discussion among members of the audience, including Anne Martz of Richmond.
"How do we identify these kinds of kids who are on the margin? How do we take these kids in so they might get better?" she asked.
Rick Tatnall, executive director of Citizens Against Crime, said the answer is not building a better campus security system, it's being engaged with the community early on.
"It's not sirens, it's preventative. We need to start paying attention and get involved," he said. "There are people dealing with this situation every day. There are children sleeping in the bathtub at night in order to keep safe."
The discussion, which was the 13th in the newspaper's Public Square series, coincided with students returning to class at Virginia Tech. Previous squares have covered property assessments and taxes, underage drinking, immigration, the Richmond Braves' ballpark, crime, charitable giving and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.