(From Antoinette Machiaverna, TODAY Producer and Mother of a College Student)
For parents of college students, like me, with children miles away at college, the massacre at Virginia Tech has been unsettling. It is just harder and harder for parents to protect their children. No matter how old they are, they are still your children. You always want to keep them safe, even if you can't keep them close by.
(A student hugs her mother as she departs Virginia Tech. Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
This week I interviewed experts for the many segments we did asking how and why this happened. When I asked Marylene Cloitre, a psychologist at the New York University Child Study Center, how parents can reassure young adults that they are safe, she told me:
"I think people have a changed view of how safe they really are and it's less than what they used to think. By and large, these events are rare. There will be a change in security so I don't think students will be, practically speaking, less safe. They will be MORE safe… What does change is their feeling of being invulnerable. They have learned they are not invulnerable and that's how people reappraise what happens."
My son is about to graduate from a major university 3,000 miles away. He and his friends all feel that new vulnerability and wonder if there is some crazy shooter among them on his urban Los Angeles campus. My husband and I have held our collective breath for four years, long before Cho Seung-Hui went on his rampage. You can only hope that Dr. Cloitre's prediction that things will become safer becomes a reality very quickly.
My son, like Cho, also lived with "suitemates". It's a common practice on campuses all over the country. Until this year, my son never put in a roommate request and so it was always the luck of the draw. If he didn't like a kid, he just spent less time in the room. Luckily, most of his roommates were great kids.
But going forward, how are universities going to handle reassuring students that their randomly selected roommate isn't depressed, suicidal or homicidal? And how will YOU know? Even though you’re shelling out thousands of dollars a year for your kid's higher education, privacy laws prevent you from even knowing his grades? How will you know if he is living with a mentally unstable time bomb?
These college kids are the generation who witnessed Columbine while they were in high school. The summer after his junior year, my son attended a highly regarded and selective filmmaking program at a major midwestern university with kids from all over the country. His scriptwriting professor told that class how upset she was by the extreme level of violence in the screenplays written by those young male and female filmmakers.
Dr. Cloitre told me it's hard to tell the difference between a simply artistic expression, and a person who is mentally ill.
After reading Cho's plays, my son e-mailed me his reaction:
"Those plays are extremely disturbing. Makes me think of all those strange, left-field ideas I've been listening to in film classes throughout college; makes me think of the authors of those ideas and their mental-wellness as well as their capabilities to lose it all one day (I can name a few candidates). I've read some strange, scary scripts...and it really makes you wonder. This kid had to be more than just mentally ill. These kinds of things have stories behind them that involve their whole lives.
My point is that this kid's story is going to be long and complicated. How could somebody go through so much of their life emotionally comatose and not be accommodated whatsoever. Issues concerning mental illness and emotional distress, particularly in our children must be addressed. I think, like everyone, I can't stop thinking about what happened."
I'm sure college students everywhere share his concerns.
In the coming weeks, parents will breathe a sigh of relief as their kids return home from college. And we hope college administrations spend the summer finding ways to keep our kids safe again … for our own peace of mind.