April 18, 2007

Reflections on the Virginia Tech massacre

Even though I saw the news unfolding, I found it difficult to stay focused on it at that time. I just didn’t want to follow it closely at first, as I used to do when I worked at newspapers. The Virginia Tech story comes too close and its reverberations echo in my community.

A few years ago while on a journey East, we decided to stop for the night at in Kent, Ohio, the home of Kent State University. We were ready to find a motel and we have had good experiences staying in college towns as there are usually lots of motels, good places to eat, and something interesting happening. It is hard not to think of the killing of four students May 4, 1970 when you are there. But when we visited the campus, we couldn’t find too much that memorialized the students. Maybe things have changed. But we had such an empty feeling as a result. At least, the campus has memorials and observances each May 4. Still, we just wanted some way to pay our respect and reflect better than talking about it in a rather sterile motel room later.

The community of Virginia Tech will probably handle its memorial events differently as Tuesday’s tragedy reflects a different kind of tumult in society. Our culture has changed in how we react to these extraordinary tragedies and perhaps that's particularly positive. Whenever I hear Neil Young sing “four dead in Ohio” I cringe with sadness. To transpose those lyrics to “thirty-two dead in Virginia” is extraordinarily sad and disheartening. I pray for the families and the university and that some positive windows can open somehow.

As a high tech parent, the discussion of how to contact students in the age of cell phones and email is enlightening. Blacksburg is trying to be one of the most connected communities in the U.S., so the VT' administration's inability to understand that the easiest way to contact students is through text messaging to phones seems rather sad. If this community that is quite high tech still had problems, what does it say about how technology could work for the rest of us? The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article probing this question, “Texting when there’s trouble.”

Universities need to rethink security issues as well. Parents and students (and maybe even faculty and staff) have different expectations concerning safety than just ten years ago. We know technology exists to enable only electronic passholders to enter dorms or any building on campus. We know that high schools use metal detectors, but rarely see them in colleges. We know cameras exist all over highways, but are they on campuses in appropriate places?

Even though Hope College is near a somewhat unsafe neighborhood, when I stayed in a dorm for a conference a few summers ago, I felt particularly safe. The reason: to get into every dorm and many other buildings on campus everyone had to have an electronic pass card. I couldn’t even get into the main library until I asked for special clearance. I think this is in the future for colleges and universities.

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