Shelton L. Williams: What I learned from the Texas school mass shooting 41 years ago

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[Shelton L. Williams is the John D. Moseley Chair of Government and Public Policy at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, and President of the Osgood Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C.]

The American penchant for noting records marked the Virginia Tech shootings in Blacksburg as the “single worst massacre on an American campus.” Having survived the previous record-setting event, that awful day in 1966 at the University of Texas, I understand the demarcation, but the label doesn’t tell the whole story. In particular, it runs the risk of following Stalin’s cynical comment that “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” We know better. Each and every death at Virginia Tech was a tragedy.

At noon on August 1, 1966, I was in my car at a stoplight in front of the University Co-Op Bookstore, just across the street from the University of Texas campus. By that time Charles Whitman had already begun his assault on innocence from the Texas Tower. Barely 10 feet away from me a paperboy had been felled by a single, incredibly accurate shot just minutes before. Others had died or were dying on the street, across the campus, and at points nearby. That I was not a statistic that day is either a coincidence or a miracle. That I was among the hundreds, maybe thousands, deeply and personally affected by this tragedy is an undeniable fact.

In truth, I had more or less seen it coming. Over the previous few months I had numerous encounters with Charles Whitman, and I had long been fearful of him. Twice a week my senior year I had seen or heard him as he sat on a windowsill or stood in the hallway outside his upcoming class in the Architecture Building. I had a political history class at the same time in the same building, and the windowsill where I waited for class was next to his. The persistent nervous habit of chewing his fingernails with a vengeance had earned him the nickname “Charley Fingernails” in my household. His military bravado and occasional flashes of anger worried me so much that I had confessed to others, “If this guy ever does anything violent, no one had better say, ‘he doesn’t seem the type of person who’d do something like that.’ ” In retrospect, we know now without question that at some point, perhaps during spring semester, Whitman had confessed to the university psychiatrist, “sometimes I feel like going up to the Tower with a deer rifle and killing people.”...

As a professor on a college campus for 36 years, I appreciate the privacy rules that govern our interactions with students and parents. Still, I believe that these laws and strictures must be reviewed. Parents of students under 21 do have a right to know when their child is in a personal crisis, especially one that potentially threatens the lives of others. The privacy strictures regarding financial issues and grades, however, do not seem to apply. I empathize with colleagues who cite not only limitations in their professional training to deal with mental disorders among students but also the roadblocks they face when alerting those better prepared....

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