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Dobbs: Death and violence are not rites of passage

By Lou Dobbs
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Editor's note: Lou Dobbs' commentary appears weekly on

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Our country is in shock at the slaughter of 32 Virginia Tech students and teachers. Our national consciousness will be dominated for days by the senseless deaths and the wounding of dozens more on Virginia Tech's campus.

You and I will try to make sense of the utter madness. And we in the media will report on every conceivable element of the worst shooting rampage in our nation's history as we try to learn more about the lives cut short by a 23-year-old man named Cho Seung-Hui.

Why did Ryan Clark, who pursued three majors and performed charity work, and all the other wonderful people have to fall prey to madness? Why was Cho Seung-Hui so alienated that his peers, instructors and even roommates in the Blacksburg university community didn't take more action to help him and protect themselves?

As more days pass without answers, and they surely will, it is all too likely that this week's horror will become a historical benchmark against which future campus and school shootings will be compared.

It is also likely that too many of us will fail to ask and seek answers to the most important question of all: Why are we, our society and our culture, tolerating the deaths of so many of our college students? While the horror of the murders in Blacksburg galvanize our attention, we in the national media seemingly lack the capacity to report and analyze what has become accepted violence and death on campuses around the country.

Fatal mass shootings in our nation's elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges number just over 250 killed in the past 80 years. While shooting violence is worsening, it does not approach the toll of other violence on our college youth.

We all seem unable to assimilate the fact that thousands of college students are dying violently each year. About 1,100 students each and every year will commit suicide, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and four of every five young people who attempt suicide exhibit clear warning signs.

The rate of drug overdoses among teens and young adults more than doubled over the five-year period from 1999 to 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. And each year, on average, there are 1,400 drinking-related deaths among college students nationwide, according to the Task Force on College Drinking. The Task Force estimates that binge drinking by college students also contributes to 70,000 cases of sexual assault or rape each year.

The Virginia Tech murders are horrible. And because they are dramatic, they have our full attention. But for all our sakes, I hope we also ask ourselves why our society permits what has become the routine slaughter of a far greater number of young people on our college campuses. We should also ask ourselves why we've done so little to understand the causes of all these senseless deaths on our campuses.

Peter Sheras, professor at the University of Virginia and associate director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project, agrees: "There are lots of murders, unfortunately, that occur in a lot of settings. We need to be vigilant in schools, but we have to not overreact and just deal with the big issues but...the underlying issues about the atmosphere of school, the attachment at school and whether people seek help."

Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, offers one opinion on the root causes: "I would argue that discipline in our schools earlier is not working. And young men, in particular, are not internalizing the norms and values of our society. And periodically, you get acute manifestations of this, as in these rampage school shootings."

As we grieve for those murdered and wounded in Blacksburg, I hope we can all agree that it is important to address the larger scope of violence on our college campuses and deal with the underlying causes.

We must reject death and violence as a rite of passage on college campuses.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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