Commentary

It’s important to know everything that led to slayings of UVA football players

November 18, 2022 12:01 am

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

This isn’t another anti-gun tirade, though I have every reason and urge to launch into one after Sunday’s cold-blooded killings of three University of Virginia football players.

Suffice it to say more convincing voices than mine have made those arguments better and more abundantly than I ever could, sadly to little discernible effect. Guns still flood our streets, too often in the hands of people wholly unfit to possess them. Most evenings, shootings lead local TV newscasts.

What gripped me was learning that the suspect in the slaying of UVA wide receivers Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr. and linebacker D’Sean Perry on a chartered bus that had just returned to the university after a field trip to Washington is a former teammate.

Rage so overwhelming that it drives people to address grievances by pointing a loaded firearm at an adversary and squeezing the trigger is foreign, though not unheard of, in the world of football. As the rampage at Virginia Tech proved so tragically in 2007 and as shootings this year at Bridgewater College and in a residential neighborhood near Old Dominion illustrate, colleges certainly aren’t immune either.

What gives rise to such unchecked fury? How can it fester – sometimes unrecognized or unreported and too often untreated – for months or even years until it explodes with deadly force from the muzzle of a gun?

There’s been little authoritative or detailed reporting about the circumstances that allegedly drove the accused, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., to such anger. His father said in television interviews that his son was “really paranoid” the last time he saw him and that “some people were picking on him.”

University officials said Jones had been linked to an investigation in relation to a hazing incident, but that the matter was dropped because unspecified witnesses refused to cooperate.

It’s incumbent on UVA to make public the fullest possible accounting of all that it knew or was investigating about Jones during his time at the university. It’s going to come out anyway as the criminal case against Jones and possibly civil lawsuits are litigated.

But if there are lessons to be learned from the immediate past that can save lives in the future, the whole story should be disclosed sooner rather than later. The announcement Thursday by Attorney General Jason Miyares that he will appoint a special counsel to investigate events leading to the killings is a step in the right direction.

The same appeal for transparency was made 15 and a half years ago after Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot 32 people dead after leaving a trail of largely ignored signs of the hatred that boiled within until he acted out his sick fantasies one cold April morning. Those details remained tightly held until they emerged in a report by a special commission then-Gov. Tim Kaine empaneled to investigate how Cho slipped through the safety net. It led to legislative reforms regarding the state’s woebegone behavioral health system and campus security protocols. Those security provisions had put Jones on the radar of UVA officials.

In particular, more must be known about those amorphous hazing claims.

Hazing serves no useful purpose. It has no place in modern life, particularly not in academic settings.

In 2021, a Virginia Commonwealth University student died of alcohol poisoning in a fraternity hazing incident. The university recently entered a nearly $1 million negotiated settlement with the family of 19-year-old freshman Adam Oakes. His parents said their son was handed a bottle of whiskey at an off-campus frat house and told to drink it.

Four men were convicted in 2015 on charges related to the 2013 drowning of two Virginia State University students in the Appomattox River during an initiation ritual for a group not sanctioned by the university.

I underwent hazing tied to my football team membership in high school and later in college.

High school was more abusive – a gauntlet of blows with fists rained upon a player’s back as he crawled down the aisle of a school bus on the trip home after a road game. I bore livid bruises for weeks in silence. People have served jail time for lesser assaults.

As I entered the lettermen’s club at the University of Mississippi, “hell week” included Tabasco sauce and garlic juice sprinkled indiscriminately upon one’s person.

My high school alma mater ended its barbaric ritual during my time there. Ole Miss banned the M-Club ritual in the mid-1970s – as I was going through it – after fisticuffs between two inebriated teammates during a hazing event at an Oxford tavern landed one of them in the hospital.

The desire to avenge hazing indignities or injuries could (and did) lead to fistfights, but no one turned to the lethal use of powder and lead to settle the score.

What changed? The ready availability of guns? A culture that fetishizes their impulsive use against other humans? Peer pressure? Social media algorithms coded to amplify angry, antagonistic posts? The deterioration of family structures where those harboring rage or mental illness might find refuge and help?

Most likely, combinations of those, says the American Psychological Association, cautioning that gun violence is a complex, urgent and multifaceted problem. There is no single profile that reliably predicts who will harm himself or others with a gun, according to a 2013 APA report titled “Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention and Policy.”

The study said developmental issues as well as gender and culture are “antecedents to gun violence.”

“Youth gun violence is often sensationalized and misunderstood by the general public, in part because of increasingly public acts of violence and related media coverage,” its authors wrote. Gun violence, they continued, “is associated with a confluence of individual, family, school, peer, community, and sociocultural risk factors that interact over time during childhood and adolescence.”

The study notes that males predominantly commit gun crimes, and that interventions to repair warped “perceptions among males of social norms about behaviors and characteristics associated with masculinity” might help.

Virginia has had plenty of bloodshed, too many after-action reports that gather dust and lots of chances to better prepare and equip its mental health system to identify and heal those who are a threat to themselves and others. Reforms inspired by the Virginia Tech massacre and by the 2014 stabbing attack on state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, by his son, who was in the grips of a mental health crisis, forged a sound blueprint that state agencies have struggled to execute.

Still, three of UVA’s brightest stars — young athletes and promising young men — lie lifeless as two other students recover from their gunshot wounds because … why?

I’m still waiting for someone to explain everything that led to this awful moment.

This story has been clarified to note that shootings happened near ODU, not on the campus. No students were injured.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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