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VIEWPOINT: Shattered illusions about college

SEATTLE - Red brick, white columns, lawns and leafy promenades. My son and husband spent last week's spring break taking the trip our family had plotted and anticipated for so very long - the reconnaissance mission to look at the colleges our hig...

SEATTLE - Red brick, white columns, lawns and leafy promenades.

My son and husband spent last week's spring break taking the trip our family had plotted and anticipated for so very long - the reconnaissance mission to look at the colleges our high school junior will be aiming at in one more year.

But, of the myriad questions swirling in their heads like snow globes, none was what the school would do if, God forbid, a gunman is aiming at him once he gets there.

Suddenly a shiver chills the warm, sap-happy dream parents hug closely as their kids start moving away.

We want to see them strolling across expansive greens or sprawling under elms somewhere, earnestly arguing ethics. We can't bear to envision them crouching behind upturned desks or leaping out of windows.


Each day, from the road, my travelers called with a fresh campus report. And no one was hungrier for the details than our adopted grandma on the Oregon coast. She especially wanted to know what "the boys" thought of her home state, Virginia.

Although it's now hard for Grandma Lin to see much of anything else, her own idyllic campus candids remain vivid and lovely. At least they did until Monday's massacre.

It was at Virginia Tech where she met and fell in love with the dashing cadet she would marry, follow from Baghdad to Rome to Ghana and eventually to small-town Oregon. He was a student; she worked in one of the school's science buildings.

On Tuesday, deeply shaken by what we'd both been hearing on CNN, the idyll had evaporated for us and for the millions of parents with kids already away at school who surely called just to check and see that they are safe and whole.

It's odd, this idea of a small city where you pay (a lot) to live at 18, 19 or 20. A town with a minute police force. A town where the draws of openness and freedom now also seem like flaws.

On last week's trip the questions were still comfortingly routine. Big school or small? Urban or rural? What's the GPA to get in? The SAT? How's the food? The male-female ratio? How friendly are the profs?

One week later, our questions would have been darkly different. They are the questions the entire country now wants answered.

Why, less than one hour after an armed gunman went room-to-room in a dorm tracking a girlfriend and killing a senior and a freshman along the way, did 8 a.m. classes start as usual?


Why was that initial carnage dismissed as an isolated "domestic dispute"? (We really need new words for this kind of violence.)

Why did building doors stay open for nearly two more hours until the mass shootings started at Norris Hall? Why was it nearly 10 a.m. before the message, "Please stay put, a gunman is loose on campus" finally went out, followed 20 minutes later by the cancellation of classes and the closing of entrances to campus?

Why, after shootings on and near campus the previous August, wasn't there a better emergency and communications plan in place?

No, the entire 2,600-acre Virginia Tech campus could not have been lidded and locked. But early and insistent warnings could and should have gone out in e-mail, text messages and on the school Web site.

Department heads could have been immediately contacted by e-mail and cell phone. Surveillance cameras should have been installed and working in the hall where the massive shootings occurred. Students could have been warned far, far earlier to leave classrooms and hunker in a bunker.

When an English professor deemed the writings of the reported shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, disturbing and troubled, he was properly dispatched for counseling. But what was the follow-through, if any?

In the same breath late Monday, Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said both that "nothing more could have been done" and that, now, "security will be tightened."

So many questions cried out Tuesday as six slain students still had not been identified and six families agonized in the purgatory of not knowing for certain.


The rest of us who are just toeing up to the brink of the big, formerly bright and shiny sendoff can only hope there are at least a few reassuring answers before those big sneakers begin their stroll across a distant green.

Paynter writes for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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