Our Worst Nightmare

By Stephen Joel Trchtenberg, president of George Washington University (THE WASHINGTON POST, 19/04/07):

The horrifying killings at Virginia Tech on Monday leave us grieving and troubled. They also leave us -- especially those like me who lead colleges and universities -- with difficult questions to ask and, then, to try to answer.

The most complex and emotional question is: Could this massacre have been prevented by getting Cho Seung Hui into counseling -- or, as some have suggested, by removing this young man from Virginia Tech's campus? This is a university administrator's nightmare.

GW was in the news last year for its attempts to serve the best interests of a student who had sought mental health treatment, while also considering the well-being of all of our students. Ultimately, the university decided that an interim involuntary leave was the best course of action to protect a life. We were sued by the former student, and the media and others were quick to fault the university. (The case has been settled.) Had the student stayed at GW and hurt himself or others, it's likely the criticism would have been that the university should have done even more. We probably still would have faced a lawsuit. In this case, we stand by the result that a life may have been saved. And we needed to have been thoughtful in our adjudication process.

For Virginia Tech, no amount of armchair quarterbacking will explain why Cho did what he did or how this tragedy might have been prevented. Why didn't treatment help? Could administrators have taken different action based on Cho's creative writing and the threats now perceived in those writings? Could his parents have done more?

First, you can't force someone to continue treatment. Second, under federal and local laws and regulations, a university must identify a direct threat of harm by an individual to himself or to others before taking defined administrative or judicial actions. We do not have sufficient information to pass judgment on Virginia Tech, nor would I commit such an unfair act. Media reports and expert consultants offer black-and-white solutions to these complicated issues, which require nuanced professional judgments. Finally, local, state and federal authorities also are limited in how they can respond to perceived threats. A potentially abusive, violent or homicidal person must make a legally plausible threat or act before security enforcement officials can respond. The choices available create conflict, anxiety, criticism and, unfortunately, sometimes casualties.

Now to those who express surprise that Virginia Tech did not "lock down" its campus after the first murders. What does "lock down" mean? Is it possible, or even imaginable, to lock down a rural campus covering 2,600 acres or, for that matter, an urban institution such as the George Washington University, which covers 20 city blocks? Does a lockdown provide protection or expose students, faculty, staff and visitors to other unknown threats? Would an evacuation be appropriate? How do you communicate and effect such decisions, and how quickly can this be done?

It is important now to state an obvious truth: When news of a murder arrives, no one I know could possibly be prepared for it. No matter what plans we have made for catastrophes, there is going to be some period of confusion, emotional dizziness and a legitimate questioning of the reliability of the news.

No one wants to take severe action when it could turn out that the news was inaccurate. No one wants to cry wolf and cause panic, which can unleash its own devils. This means that a deliberative pause is inevitable -- and to think otherwise is naive and unjust.

To the communication issue, an editorial yesterday on the opposite page addressed the viral nature of information sharing. Whether news arrives by text message, cellphone call, e-mail, blog, a social networking site such as Facebook, television or radio, it spreads quickly -- but it may be incomplete. The selective nature of these communications presents myriad challenges for university administrators. We can push messages via a combination of channels, yet people still must take an active role in this process. GW has a recorded information line and a Campus Advisories Web site ( http://www.gwu.edu/~gwalert), where anyone can go for information during an incident. We also participate in Alert DC, a free service through the District of Columbia that allows subscribers to select how they would like to receive emergency alerts and notifications. But technology is merely the channel, not the message. The timely decision-making dilemma remains: How do we share accurate information during a crisis and address the desire for immediacy, two things that are often in conflict as a situation unfolds.

The killings at Virginia Tech, like the atrocity of Sept. 11, did not come with advance warning. But they have put us on notice. We need to understand that no place, however noble or sacred we believe it to be, is exempt from violence. We must continue a reasoned national dialogue based on awareness and understanding rather than anger and fear.