Va. Tech shootings analyzed

Friday, May 4, 2007
Photo by Clint Confehr Addressing issues raised by the Virginia Tech shootings are, from left, Gov. Phil Bredesen, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, and Rich Campanelli of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As state and federal officials respond to President Bush's request for analysis on how to prevent school shootings, Marshall County schools' director says his teachers have always been attentive to students and alert to differences in behavior.

Meanwhile, educators and law enforcement leaders in a state seminar cited early intervention as an important tool recognized by a former school resource officer, Lewisburg Police Chief Doug Alexander. And it's as simple as being observant, he said.

"I watched every kid get off the school bus or out of their parent's car," Chief Alexander said Wednesday. "If I saw a look on their face, or that their hair was messed, or not right, I spoke with them in private."

An SRO is a liaison between students, teachers, parents and school administrators, Alexander said.

Schools Director John David Pierce said, "We have not had many calls locally voicing concern at my office.

"But a situation like Virginia Tech can happen at any time. That is why we feel prevention is so important," Pierce said Monday.

Last week, President Bush sent Rick Campanelli, counselor for human services policy in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to Nashville to meet with Gov. Phil Bredesen and other officials to gather ideas for a federal response to the shootings at Virginia Tech.

"Number one on our agenda," Pierce said from his office, "is to encourage and educate teachers and students on looking for warning signs, such as strange or explicit writing and odd behaviors. Students who are 'loners' also merit special attention."

Pierce explained that students who exhibit warning signs would receive counseling.

At Nashville's main library on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper said, "Mental illness has not received the attention it deserves."

Discussion among educators at the governor's workshops indicated a need for increased funding to respond to what's revealed by these discussions.

Here, Pierce said, "Future actions may include security cameras and metal detectors, as well as increased personnel at schools, as funding allows."

Currently, Marshall County's high schools and Lewisburg Middle School have one School Resource Officer (SRO) each.

Chad Bass is the SRO at Forrest High School in Chapel Hill. He said the school has a response plan in place and teachers are well versed in it.

"SROs attend an SRO Conference in the summer that goes over critical incident response and rapid deployment for emergencies," Bass said.

"It's the little things, such as a child feeling dejected, being picked on. We make sure that children aren't bullied, and make friends with children that don't have many friends. We also work with the guidance counselors, talking to students who may have written something morbid or frightening. Prevention is the key."

Cornersville High School SRO Shane Chapman echoed those sentiments.

"Virginia Tech was a horrible tragedy, and small town America is just as susceptible as a big campus. We will treat every threat as 'the real thing' and address each situation to prevent anything from happening in our schools."

Gov. Phil Bredesen on Saturday focused a discussion among education leaders by asking if privacy rules are too tight. He asked what steps Congress might take with information from workshops President Bush sought through a directive issued within a week of the shooting deaths at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Robert K. Glenn, a vice president at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, said one way to share student records comes from a law that created consent forms for schools to release confidential education records for communication between students, their families and schools when a young adult's rights conflict with parental responsibilities.

Privacy rights over health records, as protected by federal law, combined with the federal Family, Educators Rights and Responsibilities Act, can prevent education records from being shared, according to discussion during one of the workshops in Nashville.

Nevertheless, a Virginia Tech professor sought help from campus police because she was disturbed when reading what Cho Seung-Hui wrote in a creating writing class, according to That was some 18 months before Cho's deadly shooting spree.

Cho killed 32 and wounded 25 before killing himself.

"It was disturbing to the president," Campanelli said in opening remarks, explaining to dozens of state, local and federal officials that Bush "sent us out to see what the perceptions are on the event ... [and] ... make sure we are framing the issues for the agenda."

Discussion at the Nashville library, indicated agreement - funding is needed.

MTSU has four counselors for 23,000 students, Glenn said.

"Now, we're telling people, 'Four sessions are all you'll get from us. If you need more, go to someone else who can get you some help, and we'll take you there,'" Glenn said.

"At least once a semester, we have someone go off their drugs," Glenn said.

To quell suggestions he'd heard, Glenn emphasized arming faculty and students is not an appropriate solution.

"Plus, Cho would have qualified for a concealed weapon permit," he said, adding that counselors would have been afraid to call in someone like Cho for a consultation. Furthermore, "metal detectors don't help," Glenn said.

Susan Bunch, assistant commissioner of the state department of education, said educators have been so concerned about the federal No Child Left Behind Act, that they've not been aware enough of social issues.

Bredesen said, "We need to take the lessons from this tragedy and work to better protect our citizens..."

[Marshall County Tribune staff writers Kristina Grossheim and Clint Confehr contributed to this story.]