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Honor Va. Tech's fallen by fixing these problems

April 20, 2007

A deranged student's massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech on Monday raises - again - a number of issues that go beyond campus security procedures there.

As a nation, American has a short attention span and for many citizens the temptation will be to try not to think too long about this tragedy.

In our view, attempts to forget what happed in Blacksburg, Va., this week would dishonor those who died, not to mention delaying needed solutions to these problems.

They include:

Gun control. We have already received letters and op-eds from those on both sides of this issue and hope to publish many of them next week.

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On one hand, there are those who believe this is a signal that the U.S. should ban the personal possession of all handguns. On the other side are those who believe that the answer is expanding the right of citizens to carry concealed weapons.

If, some writers say, another Virginia Tech student or faculty member had been armed, the shooter might have been stopped in the middle of his murderous activities.

The political reality is that, given the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a proposal to ban all handguns does not have a chance of passage. Nor does a bill to allow most citizens to carry concealed handguns.

Considering how easy it was for the Virginia Tech shooter to obtain guns despite having been in a mental institution, we don't have confidence that the authorities would be able to determine which applicants are sane and which aren't.

What makes more sense is an expanded campus security force, with armed and trained officers, and more extensive background checks for handgun purchasers.

Had anyone acquainted with the Virginia Tech shooter known he was purchasing handguns, red flags would have gone up and the blood bath might have been averted.

Another change that must be made concerns the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

According to a 2006 University of Minnesota bulletin to parents, under FERPA, "college students are considered responsible adults and are allowed to determine who will receive information about them."

Without the student's permission, parents cannot receive copies of the children's grades or even find out whether the student has violated the college's drug or alcohol policies.

As the shooter began his downward spiral, FERPA apparently prevented Virginia Tech from contacting his parents. There is something terribly wrong when an institution to which parents entrust their children cannot warn them when he or she seems to be developing a serious mental illness.

(Until the law is changed, we advise parents to have their children sign a permission slip for release of information before the first day of class.)

Finally, there is the role of the media. Some readers have said that the extensive coverage only encourages copy-cat crimes and that by airing portions of material the shooter mailed to NBC in New York City, he was given the fame he sought with his crimes.

We would argue that the reporting in this case has turned up a number of problems that need to be addressed.

The include the campus security procedures that kept students clueless about the first shootings, the lack of a campuswide lockdown and an English teacher's unheeded warnings about the shooter's mental state.

Last year, some in the community criticized The Herald-Mail for what some felt were alarmist stories about lax security in some schools in the region. Changes were made and after Monday's events, few would say that the changes were excessive.

For some days to come, we will report on memorial services for the victims at Virginia Tech and about who the victims were.

But after the last "amen" at those services, we hope that soon after we'll be able to report on the changes being made to reduce the chances that such a thing would happen again.

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