V-Tech Professor: Would-Be Shooter Needed Care
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month. We have been hearing from well-known writers and some new voices, and in a few minutes, we will hear from newcomer, Lorenzo Arce of Oak Park, Illinois. He's 12 years old.
But first, we're going to take a few minutes to remember the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Two years ago today, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech. Many more people were injured. He fired more than 170 rounds from two guns before he killed himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Cho was an English major at the school when Lucinda Roy was the chair of the English department. After another faculty member, the renowned poet Nikki Giovanni, expressed concerns about Cho's writings and behavior, Roy agreed to work with Cho privately, and she also urged him to get help and tried to get help for him to fight whatever demons were plaguing him. That help never came.
Why it never came and what we can learn from all this is the subject of her latest book, "No Right To Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech." We welcome Lucinda Roy to the program now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. LUCINDA ROY (Professor, Virginia Polytechnic University): Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: In your book you write: After tragedies like this, people clam up, and of course, you were referring to the university administration's response, which I want to talk more about. But this had to have been difficult for you -to write this book, to relive this experience in the course of writing it. Why did you feel it was important to do this?
Ms. ROY: Well, as soon as I came to conclusion that it could happen again and that we tended not to learn from these tragedies at all, but just to pretend that they didn't happen and move on, then I realized that I didn't have much choice but to write this book.
I don't think that Virginia Tech was an isolated incident, and it concerned me greatly that students were still in danger, and if I believed that, then I needed to speak.
MARTIN: But one of the things that you are grieving in this book, if I may say, is that you have loved your time at Virginia Tech. You make that very clear, but you feel that as a result of writing this book, your relationships with people there may be broken to the point where you may have to leave. Do you really believe that?
Ms. ROY: Oh, I think that that's quite likely, yes, and that will be a sad occasion for me, but I'd reconciled myself to that when I sat down and wrote the first words. So there are always consequences to actions, and I understood what they could be. So I'm prepared for whatever comes along, I think.
MARTIN: As we are speaking, we are just days from the 10th anniversary of Columbine. You write that schools don't act as filters against violence. In reality, they can be attractive sites for vengeance. Why is that?
Ms. ROY: I think there are a number of reasons. Maybe the main one is the fact that the school is an amazing stage for people who want to protest something or make some very violent statement. And I think it can be particularly tempting to young men who are very angry and who want to have a very dominant voice. And I think that it's a place where they feel they can usurp authority and also not have much opposition.
I mean, students are doing what they're meant to be doing in those classes. They're learning, and so they're sitting quietly, and I think that that can become a tempting target for certain types of people, unfortunately, who are severely mentally ill.
MARTIN: What is your main criticism of the way Virginia Tech handled the whole situation? You recount in excruciating, and I must say, painful detail about how troubled this young man clearly was and how many people tried to help him, and indeed, at some point, he tried to help himself.
I mean, he did, at the urging of you and other people in his life, did try to get some counseling. But is this a general circumstance, do you think, in the way we treat people with difficulties? We just figure look, you know what, it's your problem. You deal with it. Or do you think there's something about the way your particular institution handled this that we should think about?
Ms. ROY: I think that we at Virginia Tech at the time had an overly strict interpretation of student-privacy issues, and I think that that really was a shame. There are certain laws that guide the way we interact with students. (Unintelligible) is the main one, and I think that people didn't understand that it's fine to convey your concern about a student and share information much more so than we were permitted to do.
But I also think that this phenomenon is happening all over the country. And I've heard from hundreds of people since the tragedy, who write to me saying, I have Seung-Hui Cho in my class or my son is Cho and I've tried desperately to get help for him and I cannot. And I don't think people realize just how extensive this problem is. It's everywhere in the U.S. and actually in Europe as well. And we need to think very long and hard about how we're prioritizing education and mental health and making sure that we are really catering to young people who may be in terrible trouble and who are giving us signs that we need to react to.
MARTIN: But, you know, universities these days take systemic approaches to lots of things. I mean, we have courses on, you know, sexual harassment and date rape and drinking and alcohol, all manner of life skills discussions on college campuses. Do you really think we don't talk about mental illness?
Prof. ROY: Actually, we don't talk about mental illness that much. But I think even more than that, we're terrified of talking about troubled students. And I think that one of the reasons we are is partly because it's very difficult to identify them in the first place, particularly if the main reason we're concerned is because of their creative writing, for example. How do you try to decide whether or not that really is a serious warning that we need to be threatened by, or if it's just someone who likes Stephen King, for example. He's experimenting with his imagination and doing some pretty amazing things with it. So, it can be a hard thing to identify in the first place. And then we're terrified of litigation.
So people don't want to say that maybe there could be a problem. It is a very risky thing to do. If you identify a troubled student, you can be at risk yourself for the rest of your life, actually, if that student is very angry and if there isn't much that can be done because he hasn't actually made enough of a threat. So it can be a terrifying thing for teachers to step forward and say, I'm very worried about this student.
MARTIN: I want to ask you as a writer, as a person who lives in words, how would you - how do you parse that out for yourself? Must have been a difficult dilemma when you confronted Cho about his writings and he said, oh, it was satire. And how did you determine that it went beyond just inartful work, inelegant work, to the point where you really became convinced he was troubled?
Prof. ROY: You know, it can be very difficult to know. And you never know for certain but you get a strong sense of whether or not a student is telling you the truth. And usually, what you've got to do is look at his behavior, look at his body language, see if there seems to be a kind of strange juxtaposition between arrogance and victimhood. See if it's - see he seems to be enraged in a kind of quiet place that's stored away and that can be brought out once in a while. You learn to look for things after you've taught for as long as I've taught. I've taught for 30 years. So if there's a lot of anger in a poem and then someone seems incredibly subdued, almost to the point of silence when they're with you, then you ought to be concerned, I think.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Lucinda Roy of Virginia Tech about her latest book, "No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech."
Do you think that ethnicity played a role in how people responded to Cho in their uncertainty about how to address his behavior and his work? I mean, you mentioned that he had a silence that was so discomforting. I wonder if you think that ethnicity played a role in how he was treated.
Prof. ROY: You know, I think that that's an excellent question. I do think that to some extent it played a role. And I have a chapter in the book that is devoted to race because I think it's something that we often are afraid of talking about. I myself am biracial. My father was Jamaican, my mother was British. And I think that we're afraid in this country to embrace that topic because it's a very dangerous thing to do, so most people don't tend to talk about it.
I think in Seung-Hui Cho's case, I think sometimes, there may have been a reticence on the part of people to intercede too much because they weren't sure whether or not some of his silence was cultural and was because he was an immigrant and because he had come from Korea rather than being born here, although he'd lived here for a long time. And I think that sometimes, we're reticent to speak across our different cultures and to reach out across culture in case it's misinterpreted.
I know I was a little bit concerned when I would meet with him about how often I could prompt him to go to counseling. Because I know in some cultures, especially for young men, it's a sign of failure if you do that. But I would always press it because it seemed to me to be so important that he go. And he seemed, in the end, not to resent that.
MARTIN: You're still very critical of the university's treatment of Cho and its behavior after the tragedy. Why is that?
Prof. ROY: I was disappointed with the upper administration. And still, I am incredibly disappointed because I feel that if you're in a leadership position, you must step forward and you must speak. It's what you're paid to do. And it's also, quite frankly, your sacred duty. And the thing that you look out for more than anything else is student safety. And if you have to weigh litigation against student safety, you always err on the side of students.
I realize that nowadays administrators are not necessarily prepared for the kinds of jobs that they encounter. Troubled students are very difficult to try and work with. And this tragedy here that we had at Virginia Tech was, I mean, it was just one of the worst things that you can possibly imagine. So I completely understand why an administration would be thrown into disarray. What I do not understand is why two years later, the administration still does not, in my opinion, speak to the families with as much respect as I would like, share as much information as I would like. It seems to me that we need to be doing that. We need to be speaking to faculty. I haven't been asked a question, for example, at anytime during the past two years about what it was like to work with Cho or how we could do better at Virginia Tech.
MARTIN: No one? No one has ever asked you this?
Prof. ROY: No. Nope. And I think that on our campus, we've got to start doing that, even if we're afraid of the answers. Because if we don't know the answers, then how on earth can we move forward?
I realize I'm not supposed to be saying this and I'm not supposed to have published a book. And I have been warned by people that it is a dangerous thing to do, by people who love me and think that it could be difficult. And I agree that it is a risky thing. But I think the risk is far greater if we pretend that nothing happened.
MARTIN: How did you go forward from here?
Prof. ROY: I think with the strength that I get from watching others with courage, much more courage than I have, who have suffered far more than I have who still find a way to speak. I watch them as much as I can and draw inspiration from them. And always from my students. My students always are pretty amazing. And they can be quite challenging sometimes but they remind me why I'm in teaching. And there's something wondrous about what they do with words. And I'm in a classroom where we can study the greatest writers, I believe, who ever lived, and that's a privilege. So, I can get a lot of strength from that, I think.
MARTIN: Finally, the final words of the book's epilogue are, even grief can be a kind of gift. Is there a way that's true for you?
Prof. ROY: I think so. You know, those words, they came out even before I thought them through. And suddenly, they were there on the page. And it was my editor, John Glassman(ph), who said to me, you know, that's right. It can be. Those are great words. And I hadn't even thought about ending there. But then, when he said that, I looked back on it and I thought, there are times when grieving reminds you that you are human, that you are part of humanity. It seemed to me that one of the things that Cho could never do was empathize sufficiently with others, that he understood who they were. And a grieving process, even though it's so painful, says to you, I am part of this group and what has been lost is terrible, and I will always carry it with me. And it will be an honor to carry it if I carry it well, I think.
MARTIN: Lucinda Roy is a professor of English at Virginia Tech. Her latest book is "No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech." She's also an accomplished writer of fiction and poetry and she was kind enough to join us from member station WVTF in Roanoke.
Thank you so much for taking the time.
Prof. ROY: Thank you.
MARTIN: To hear Lucinda Roy read an excerpt from her book, "No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech," or you can comment about today's program by going to our Web site at npr.org. Look for the TELL ME MORE tab.
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