April 17, 2007
Why "How Safe Are Our Schools/Workplaces" is the Wrong Question
Posted by Christine Hurt

As a half Virginia, half Virginia Tech family, we have been glued to the news stories coming out of Blacksburg after the massacre there yesterday.  The media seems to want to jump to the bigger, but I think straw, question of "How Safe Are Our Schools"?  Comparisons to the University of Texas sniper and even the Columbine shootings are in almost every news story.

In the mid-1990s, Paul and I used to laugh at the local news in Houston, which stopped reporting actual local news in favor of scare stories like "Does your bra give you cancer?"  I remember once turning on the television to hear "Masked gunmen rob Southwest Houston branch of national bank.  Coming up next, how safe are you at your bank?"  The news never told us any more details of the actual robbery, spending its time planting the idea that you might not want to go into your bank lobby.  Just a few weeks ago, I felt the same disconnect reading this CNN story, CNN Shooting Highlights Safety in Public Workplaces.  The article links together the stories of two young women who were shot by their ex-boyfriends who followed them to work.  One woman worked at the CNN Center in Atlanta, and the other worked at the University of Washington in Seattle.  The article seems to have been edited recently, but at the time, the tone was that the boyfriends had targeted these women because they worked in public places.  Someone else must have highlighted to CNN the logical fallacy there. 

On various sports chatrooms, the rumor is that the Virginia Tech gunman may have initially been seeking revenge on a girlfriend/ex-girlfriend in the dormitory.  The current CNN story hints at these rumors, quoting police as saying that initially they thought the dorm shooting was "a domestic fight" and an "isolated incident," which is why classes were not cancelled before the second shooting started.  To me, the common thread in these stories, if any, isn't that people were killed in public places, but that scorned men turned violent.  Instead of asking "How Dangerous is Your School/Workplace" maybe we should ask "How Dangerous is Your Boyfriend?"  These rumors may turn out to be unsubstantiated, and the Virginia Tech gunman may have had non-romantic reasons to turn anger outward, more of an Appalachian Law School situation than a Tarasoff situation. 

However, reading these headlines, I feel like I'm watching the old Steve Martin movie "The Jerk."  As the shooter, who has picked Martin's character, Navin Johnson to shoot by randomly choosing his name out of the phone book, misses Johnson and instead shoots cans of motor oil he is holding in his hands, Johnson cried "He hates these cans.  Stay away from the cans!"

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