Mike the Mad Biologist

Campus ‘Judicial’ Systems

At this point, it still seems unclear what happened at VA Tech, and like all tragedies, there probably would have been, in hindsight, many places where someone could have intervened and stopped the madness. One area that needs to be examined is the role of campus disciplinary systems.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of campus ‘courts’, ever since my days as an undergraduate, where cut-and-dry cases of rape (neither side really disputed what happened) were basically whitewashed, sometimes egregiously so (in one case, the rapist had to write a letter of apology and was suspended for a semester. I’m sure that made the other women feel safe and valued). Rape victims were often encouraged or pressured into these systems because they were told that it would be less stressful. What they often weren’t told is that the punishment would be very mild. But what’s as bad as the miscarriage of justice is that the crime is never entered into the public judicial system.

It appears that the VA Tech shooter had a previous history of stalking:

The gunman blamed for the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history had previously been accused of stalking two female students and had been taken to a mental health facility in 2005 after his parents worried he might be suicidal, police said Wednesday.

Cho Seung-Hui had concerned one woman enough with his calls and e-mail in 2005 that police were called in, said Police Chief Wendell Flinchum.

He said the woman declined to press charges and Cho was referred to the university disciplinary system.

Again, we won’t know what happened for a while, if ever. It’s also not clear to me if a stalking conviction would be enough to forbid a gun sale in Virginia (it is grounds for possible dismissal of a concealed weapons permit). That’s a craziness for another time. If we’re serious about stopping gun violence, I would like to think that most sane people would agree that stalkers shouldn’t have guns (Hinckley comes to mind). But no one had any way of even knowing he had this history because of the parallel and separate campus system.

Update: According to CNN, Cho was “declared mentally ill by a Virginia special justice, who declared he was “an imminent danger to others,” a court document states.” This was in reference to suicide behavior, and not the stalking. This could be a failure of the VA justice system too.

Comments

  1. #1 hibob
    April 18, 2007

    while I never had to come into contact with the university police or judicial system when I was an undergrad, I heard enough by sophomore year that I was telling people that if they had a problem they should call the real police, and if anyone complained (college town police often aren’t usually eager to deal with college students) insist on it.
    I hope there’s change in the air after this week.

  2. #2 Elf Eye
    April 18, 2007

    I’ve sat on many Conduct Court hearings at Radford, and in cases when a law may have been broken, usually what happens is that the student faces university AND criminal charges. So if a student faces charges of supplying alcohol to an underage drinker, s/he comes up in front of the Conduct Court on university charges and comes up in front of a judge on criminal charges. I wouldn’t consider them ‘parallel’ systems, however, because the goals and guidelines of each ‘court’ are different. In the case of Cho, by all accounts the stalking victim declined to press charges in the criminal system, leaving the matter in the hands of the university. The university is not going to report the results of its own hearing to the judicial system for a number of reasons, some having to do with privacy issues, some having to do with the fact that a determination by a conduct court is not the equivalent of a conviction in criminal court. Based on how Radford’s Conduct Court functions, I’m going to guess that in reaching their decision, the Tech hearing officers likely relied upon a “preponderance of the evidence” standard rather than that of “beyond a reasonable doubt” one. Radford doesn’t allow lawyers at Conduct Court hearings because they are NOT supposed to be criminal proceedings. It wouldn’t surprise me if Tech had the same policy. Radford is bound by FERPA as far as releasing information to third parties. Tech is bound by that law as well. In short, in no way shape or form could the results of a conduct hearing at Tech lead to information getting into the system that would block a later gun purchase. It would have taken a successful criminal prosecution for that to happen.

  3. #3 ponderingfool
    April 18, 2007

    Update: According to CNN, Cho was “declared mentally ill by a Virginia special justice, who declared he was “an imminent danger to others,” a court document states.” This was in reference to suicide behavior, and not the stalking. This could be a failure of the VA justice system too.
    ********************************

    Why isn’t this a breakdown of our mental health system? I know people who were in a flown blown mania (i.e. a danger to themselves and others) (they are bi-polar) who were released from mental institutions. The best answer I could explain why the places do that is to save money. Needless to say soon afterwards they returned to the institutions.

  4. #4 rjb
    April 19, 2007

    I’m extremely worried about the perception of “mental illness” on college campuses that might come out of this. I am going through a personal situation right now where my spouse is dealing with bipolar and is coming out of a brief inpatient stay at a hospital. My spouse is also a faculty member. She has absolutely no violent tendencies toward others. Now, she is going to have to bring this up to her department chair, dean, etc, and in this environment, I am worried that she will be directly penalized, removed from classes, supervisory roles over students, or otherwise. I really hope there is not a reactionary swing in the opposite direction that will brand everyone with a mental illness exactly the same. Not to be too narcissistic over a really horrific event, but this could be personally extremely traumatic to my wife and me.

    Why does there always have to be a “failure” in the system? This is a tragic case, and we should learn from it and correct any mistakes that were made in the way the system should have worked (ie, get better control over preventing gun sales to someone who should not legally have a gun). But I hope this event doesn’t lead to a whole slate of new regulations.

  5. #5 Decline and Fall
    April 19, 2007

    Why does there always have to be a “failure” in the system?

    Good point. Sometimes there are simply cases where an individual couldn’t have been helped or a crime couldn’t have been prevented. Sometimes really bad things happen, and the law is powerless to prevent it. This may or may not have been one of those cases, but it’s worthwhile to remember that the law is not a panacea and it is not perfectable.

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