The First Anniversary Of The Virginia Tech Tragedy

Tomorrow, April 16, 2008, marks the first anniversary of the horrific incident at Virginia Tech that resulted in the tragic deaths of 32 students and faculty members, and serious injuries to many other innocent victims.  Our hearts go out to the victims’ families as they mourn their loved ones who tragically lost their lives before their time.  Our sympathies also go out to the survivors of this terrible incident, as well as the entire Virginia Tech community, whose resilient spirit and courage in the face of tragedy over the past year have been truly remarkable.       

We cannot reverse the senseless violence of one year ago, nor can we repair all of the damage that the heinous acts of one very disturbed young man caused for an entire community.  But one thing we can do to honor the victims and their families is ensure that our schools, colleges, and universities have the support and resources they need to protect our children. 

Regrettably, one year after the tragic events at Virginia Tech, little has been done at the national level to address the dangers our students continue to face.  Over the past 12 months, we have continued to see threatening conduct and, too often, deadly acts of violence involving students of all ages.  Only yesterday we learned that several colleges were shut down as officials assessed graffiti messages threatening violence on campus.  School lockdowns are becoming all too common in our communities.

A string of tragedies in just one week’s time this past February reminded us once again that our students face more than merely threatening violent conduct.  Between February 8 and February 14, at least four incidents at schools and colleges resulted in death or serious injury to students of all ages.       

On February 8, a female student killed two other students, and then herself, inside a classroom on the campus of Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge.  Three days later, a student at Mitchell High School in Memphis, Tennessee, was left in critical condition after a violent incident in the school’s cafeteria.  A day later, a 15-year-old boy at E.O. Green Junior High in Oxnard, California, was critically wounded by a classmate.  He was later declared brain dead.   


Then, on February 14, tragedy struck at Northern Illinois University.  A former student opened fire in a geology class, killing five students and wounding 16, before killing himself.  As hundreds of mourners remembered one of the Northern Illinois University victims at a funeral service, more than 1,000 Virginia Tech students – many of the same students who will grieve tomorrow for their lost friends, classmates, and professors – gathered in solidarity for a candlelight vigil in Blacksburg, Virginia.    


Eight months ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee took a step to make our schools and college campuses safer when it reported the School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvement Act of 2007, S. 2084.  Regrettably, the Senate has failed to take up and pass that bill to improve school safety.  The one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech incident reminds us why this comprehensive legislation should be considered and passed without further delay.


In originating the bill more than eight months ago, the Judiciary Committee showed deference to Governor Tim Kaine and the task forces at work in Virginia, and sought to complement their work and recommendations.  Working with several Senators, including Senators Boxer, Reed, Specter, Feingold, Schumer, and Durbin, the Committee originated this bill and reported it at the start of the 2007 academic year in the hope that Congress would adopt these critical school safety improvements last fall.  We worked hard to get it done.


The incidents at E.O. Green Junior High, Mitchell High School, Louisiana Technical College, and Northern Illinois University are just a few of the tragic events that have claimed lives or resulted in serious injuries to students since the Virginia Tech tragedy.  In the time since this bill was reported out of the Judiciary Committee, we have seen tragic deaths at Delaware State University and the University of Memphis, and grievous injuries sustained by students and teachers at SuccessTech Academy in Cleveland, Ohio.  And there have been numerous lockdowns nationwide as a result of threatening conduct in our schools, including recent lockdowns at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky, and St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, New York.


The School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvement Act would address the problem of violence in our schools in several ways.  The bill authorizes federal assistance for programs to improve the safety and security of our schools and institutions of higher education, provides equitable benefits to law enforcement serving those institutions, including bulletproof vests, and funds pilot programs to develop cutting-edge prevention and intervention programs for our schools.  The bill also clarifies and strengthens two existing statutes – the Terrorist Hoax Improvements Act and the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act – which are designed to improve public safety. 


Specifically, the bill would improve the safety and security of students both at the elementary and secondary school level and on college and university campuses.  The K-12 improvements are drawn from a bill that Senator Boxer introduced right after the Virginia Tech tragedy, and I want to thank Senator Boxer for her hard work on this issue.  The improvements include increased funding for much-needed infrastructure changes to improve security as well as the establishment of hotlines and tip-lines, which will enable students to report potentially dangerous situations to school administrators before they occur.


To address the new realities of campus safety in the wake of Virginia Tech and more recent college incidents, the bill also creates a matching grant program for campus safety and security to be administered out of the COPS Office of the Department of Justice.  The grant program would allow institutions of higher education to apply, for the first time, directly for federal funds to make school safety and security improvements.  The program is authorized to be appropriated at $50,000,000 for the next two fiscal years.  While this amounts to just three dollars per student each year, it will enable schools to more effectively respond to dangerous situations on campus.


The bill would also make sworn law enforcement officers who work for private institutions of higher education and rail carriers eligible for death and disability benefits, and for funds administered under the Byrne Grant program and the Bulletproof Vest Partnership grant program.  Providing this equitable treatment is in the best interest of our nation’s educators and students, and will serve to place the support of the Federal Government behind the dedicated law enforcement officers who serve and protect private colleges and universities nationwide.  The leadership of Senator Jack Reed has been vital in this area.


The bill also helps law enforcement by making improvements to the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2003 (LEOSA).  These amendments to existing law will streamline the system by which qualified retired and active officers can be certified under LEOSA.  It serves us all when we permit qualified officers, with a demonstrated commitment to law enforcement and no adverse employment history, to protect themselves, their families, and their fellow citizens wherever those officers may be. 


The bill focuses on prevention as well, by incorporating the PRECAUTION Act at the request of Senators Feingold and Specter.  This provision authorizes grants to develop prevention and intervention programs for our schools.


Finally, the bill incorporates the Terrorist Hoax Improvements Act of 2007, at the request of Senator Kennedy.   


The Virginia Tech Review Panel – a body commissioned by Governor Kaine to study the Virginia Tech tragedy – has issued its findings based on a four-month investigation of the incident and its aftermath.  This bill would adopt a number of recommendations from the Review Panel aimed at improving school safety. 


We must not miss this opportunity to implement these initiatives nationwide and to take concrete steps to ensure the safety of our kids.  The Senate should move forward and act.  I hope those who are holding up this legislation will reconsider their position today as we prepare to remember and to honor those who so tragically lost their lives, and those who  had their lives changed forever, in the most deadly incident on a college campus in our nation’s history. 


The Senate should move forward to invest in the safety of our students and to better support law enforcement officers across the country by considering and passing the School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvement Act of 2007.


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David Carle: 202-224-3693