Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Forgotten Hero at Virginia Tech

I think one of the most overlooked factors in the Virginia Tech tragedy is that in many college dorms student employees such as Resident Assistants are often the first line of security. One of the first victims of this madman was a popular student who happened to be a resident assistant. It's an avenue of employment that is sought by many college students because it mostly pays for the most costly aspect of college life, housing. These kids work like crazy. They have to be outgoing, smart, organized and willing to enforce rules. In short, they play parents to the entire resident population under their control. A good RA can help students bond with the school, make friends and feel part of the action.

It hit close to home, because for two years one of my own kids was an RA and knowing how those student employees are trained, I could see her trying to intervene and defend a resident and getting hurt in the process just like the second victim in this tragedy. I don't think that parents sending their kids off to school appreciate the huge load carried by these student employees. RA's are the first faces they see when they move kids in. They are the ones who organize events, who lend a shoulder to cry on and who advise students and refer them to the offices where they can get academic or personal assistance. In short, they are the face of any university housing department.

Resident Assistants have to be the eyes and ears of administrative staff in regards to everything from code violations to criminal offenses. I know my daughter had to deal with fires, drug busts, assaults, theft and vandalism as a 19 year old. There was even one time that she had to deal with a student who threatened to kill his roomate. She called the police, security, the locksmith and then gave the offender a tongue lashing as the police cuffed him. These young people are given an inordinate amount of personal responsibility. And quite often they rise to the occasion. In this sad case, I am sure the RA tried to prevent the initiation of this tragedy. How sad that the messages conveyed by the perpetrators writings were ignored. Sometimes it is wise to trust gut instinct and to choose on the side of error or doubt rather than adhere to the motto of polictically correct blind acceptance.

In many universities it is campus policy that students who were suicidal or violent were told to leaving housing due to the potential for injury of student employees. In some schools there are teams to evaluate seriously sick and disturbed students. But in too many cases abhorrent thoughts and erratic behavior is dismissed as being normal, because too many times the odd is seen as normal in the light of college life. To attend a party where you know no one is "exciting" to take drugs or drink drinks that you have no idea of the contents is seen to be a rite of passage by some. Our schools, in seeking intellectual freedom have forgotten that it must be tempered with caution and responsible behavior. When the system fails, as it did in this case, there needs to be change. Maybe there needs to be a more authoritative presence in college dorms to avoid such events. In decade past a dorm mother would control the activities of the house. In the past, curfews were enforced for reasons of student security.

Too much freedom can be just as scary as too little. We could simply eliminate student employees to take them out of harm's way, but then we end up depriving students of much needed campus employment. Perhaps in the end we should consider dissolving some of the research programs and providing enough money for scholarships so that students won't end up having to work to attend college and for adults on site with the authority to provide a safer environment for all students on campus.

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