Recent posts on our list have mentioned in loco parentis with regard to the Virginia Tech killings. Yes, there is no getting around it. The absence of in loco parentis is surely one of the factors that allowed this horror to happen. There was simply no one who took ultimate responsibility for the danger that this student presented. Many people tried but there was no controlling authority and even though he was not living like an adult in the adult world, but like a semi-adolescent in a college dorm and campus, he had to be granted all the “rights” of our permissive and hyper-individualistic society and there was no way to influence his behavior. One could posit that if Cho had not been able to live in the dorm, but had had to seek housemates or roommates on the outside, his problems may well have surfaced in a way which would have forced others to deal with him before this eruption. In a house or apartment in an actual neighborhood, it is less likely that he would have escaped scrutiny to the extent that he was able to in a large dormitory where students have learned that they need to ignore odd behavior. People being asked to consider him as a roommate or housemate might have been more attentive to the ominous behaviors he evinced. But as a student he had a right to a dorm room, no questions asked.
Also, if he hadn’t been able to pass his time turning out violently perverse creative writing for classes, he might have been expected to have a job, and that might have exercised some pressure on him or given others leverage over him. (It seems that Nikki Giovanni’s poetry class diminished from 70 to single digits as more and more students stayed away in fear of Cho and his violent creations and his menacing behavior. But dropping out on this scale would not have been an option at a workplace.)
It’s time to recognize that college students are not fully adults and we should try to restore some elements of in loco parentis to campus life. If colleges have to continue to provide semi-paternal protections like dorms, they should also have some paternal control over students.
Of course the absence of in loco parentis reflects the absence of authority in our society generally, and the reigning moral nihilism that leaves questions of right and wrong not to generally accepted standards but to the individual. The individual has been elevated over the good of the society. So dozens had to lose their lives so that Cho’s rights not be infringed.
It’s pointless to talk about “senseless” and “incomprehensible” killings. Human beings have been killing since Cain and Abel. People kill, sometimes for discernible reasons, sometimes for inscrutable reasons, sometimes just for the sake of killing. The question is what society does to protect itself.
Marilyn Penn, who managed to get a couple of kids through college and beyond, discusses in loco parentis with particular attention to the need for parents to be more informed about what their children are doing at their colleges (the colleges for which the parents are paying handsomely, by the way).
[Small correction on an earlier post, “Some Thoughts on the Massacre at Virginia Tech”: In the instance of the brave students who barricaded the door of their classroom and successfully prevented Cho’s re-entry, it doesn’t seem that the door absorbed the bullets he shot from the other side, as I indicated. Rather, it seems that the students, thinking clearly even in that chaos, lay down on the floor and braced against the door with their feet, so that the bullets Cho shot through the door whizzed above them and missed their mark. God bless them.]