In 2012, freelance writer and self-proclaimed investigative journalist Chuck Marsh published a book titled “The Many Deaths of Virginia Tech.” The book names Virginia Tech “America’s Cursed College” and works through a list of tragedies that have occurred on or near the Blacksburg campus: the murder of Officer Deriek Crouse at a traffic stop, the beheading of student Xin Yang in the Graduate Life Center, the police-led hunt for an escaped inmate near campus and, of course, the infamous April 16 shootings.

The book expectedly received abysmal views and ubiquitous contempt in the comments. However, it raises a question not unfamiliar to Tech students: is Virginia Tech unnaturally predisposed to tragic incidents?

For Virginia Tech Police Chief Kevin Foust, the answer is simple.

“No. I don’t believe there is a stigma, I don’t believe Tech is cursed,” Foust said. “I don’t believe that our student community is any different from any other. I think what there is is there’s a misperception by society at large that universities and college campuses are immune to the evils out there.”

With more than 31,000 students and nearly 8,000 faculty and staff, Virginia Tech constitutes a small town in and of itself. A town built on the principle of inclusivity, welcoming people from around the world.

“We stand here with open arms and say, ‘Everybody is welcome,’” Foust said. “Part of the risk by doing that is obviously then you also have people come in who have maybe bad intentions.”

So are tragedies at Virginia Tech a result of the drawbacks of having an inclusive community and a large student population, or is the university truly “America’s Cursed College?”


Like any American college campus, crime has happened to and because of Virginia Tech students. In 2014, on the main Blacksburg campus, there were 18 burglaries, one count of motor vehicle theft and 617 liquor law violation referrals.

However, when comparing tragedies across universities, we usually don’t look to liquor law violations, we look to murder. And typically, we turn to one of the most poignant variety of campus murders: school shootings.

Unfortunately, comprehensive school shooting data is difficult to obtain. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund offers one of the most complete datasets, albeit for only three years — between 2013 and 2015, Everytown recorded 160 incidents of gunfire in K-12 and higher education schools that resulted in 59 deaths and 124 non-fatal injuries.

In this dataset, the Commonwealth of Virginia ranks No. 35 in the nation for total number of gunfire incidents on campuses (adjusted for population). This number is relatively consistent with historical but less complete datasets, including those that contain the Virginia Tech shooting, the most fatal school shooting in American history.

While this information is interesting, it falls short in two regards: one, it considers Virginia as a whole rather than Virginia Tech specifically; and two, it addresses only a fraction of the tragedies that occur in college communities.

For instance, in January 2016, 13-year-old Blacksburg native Nicole Lovell was reported missing. Blacksburg Police recruited locals to assist in the search, including 115 members of the Corps of Cadets, and the community banded together to find the missing girl. Ultimately, her body was found in the woods near Route 89 with multiple stab wounds to the neck.

The tragedy understandably wracked the university community and beyond. CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, NBC, the Chicago Tribune and others all followed the story. The Collegiate Times has written nearly 20 articles on the developing case.

Even a story as tragic as the Lovell murder would not be represented by school shooting statistics, however, since a knife was the murder weapon. Instead, we turn to university annual security reports, which have been required since 1992.

The data in these reports offers statistics on several major campus crimes: murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, to name a few. From these reports, we gather that crime at Virginia Tech, in general, matches crime at other schools.

Unfortunately, because only on-campus incidents count as Clery Act incidents, even these data are lacking.

For instance, in 2013 a firefight broke out between a Liberty University Emergency Services officer and a male student in Liberty University Residential Annex II, a female dorm located three miles from the campus. The student died and the officer was severely injured. Because the location is technically off-campus, the incident was not reported in Liberty University’s annual security report.

While these datasets do not offer conclusive findings, they do reveal interesting trends: in general, Virginia tends to have fewer campus gunfire events than other states, for a state of its size; and in general, crime at Virginia Tech matches that of other Virginia schools.

The only statistical anomaly is the severity of the Virginia Tech shooting a decade ago.

“I think what happened on April 16 could have happened on any campus, and it was Virginia Tech,” said President Tim Sands in an interview with the Collegiate Times. “It was an incredible tragedy, a magnitude that I don’t think anybody was prepared to deal with at that time, but since then we’ve seen that it does happen everywhere. And maybe not at that magnitude, but almost every major campus has had some kind of an incident that reminds them of that.”

With a better understanding of Virginia Tech’s comparative standing in terms of school tragedies, we turn to the continued role of the April 16 shooting in national media coverage.

The Virginia Tech Police Department Annual Campus Security and Fire Safety Report statistics for 2014.

President Tim Sands

President Timothy Sands speaks about his perceptions of the Blacksburg community before becoming president.


IN the past decade, hundreds of shots have rung out from college campuses across the country, though national media coverage has been inconsistent. Sometimes national outlets cover a case devotedly from start to finish, and sometimes a shooting gets just a single story. Virginia Tech, however, nearly always falls into the first category.

And when national outlets do cover a death involving the Virginia Tech community, they nearly always tie it back to that infamous day.

A few examples:

A Fox News article reporting on the 2009 on-campus decapitation of graduate student Xin Yang reads, “The killing stunned a campus that still has vivid memories of the mass slayings in April 2007, when a student gunman shot 32 people and then took his own life.”

In 2011, when part-time Radford student Ross Ashley shot Officer Crouse and then himself, CNN published an article stating, “Thursday’s double shooting conjured memories from April 16, 2007, when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 people at Virginia Tech in a mass shooting.”

And nearly nine years after the shooting, when Virginia Tech student David Eisenhauer was charged with the death of local teenager Nicole Lovell, a CBS News article read, “Eisenhauer lived in Ambler Johnston Hall, the same co-ed residence hall where the first two people were killed in the 2007 campus massacre that left 32 dead.”

The list goes on. After 2007, murder at Virginia Tech and the infamous shootings became inseparable. It’s easy to see how Virginia Tech became “America’s cursed college” in the eyes of the nation.

Is this perception accurate? Or has the severity of the April 16 shootings cast an oversized shadow on every crime since?

“I’m always fascinated by who thinks that there’s a ‘curse’ or some problem (at Virginia Tech),” said Sands, who was appointed university president in 2014. He remembers hearing about the 2007 shootings from afar and being shocked by the university community’s instant solidarity.

“My immediate response was, ‘Wow, that’s interesting, I wouldn’t have expected that,’” Sands said. “But then when you see, and I reflect on what I saw from a distance, yeah, I would want to be part of that community … That’s a special place, a place that really people value each other and really support each other.”


Fifty miles south of Lake Erie sits a university that, on paper, looks a lot like Virginia Tech. The public research university boasts a student population of 30,000 on its main campus, is prominently Caucasian, economically dominates its local town and has even gone toe-to-toe with the Hokies in Lane Stadium.

That school, Kent State University, shares another striking similarity with Virginia Tech — a tragic on-campus shooting that left four students dead on university grounds.

The story begins on April 30, 1970, when Richard Nixon, beleaguered by the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, appeared on all three U.S. television networks to address the American people. Nixon announced he was sending soldiers into the neutral country of Cambodia to dismantle Vietnamese forces hiding there.

“We live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home,” Nixon said to the nation. “We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”

Student protests broke out across the country. What started as peaceful protests at Kent State devolved into beer bottles being thrown at police cars and bonfires lit in the streets. Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a state of emergency and Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes requested the Ohio National Guard to come and restore the peace, though the soldiers did not arrive on campus until after anonymous arsonists lit the campus ROTC building on fire. Jeering protesters slashed fire hoses until they were forced away by tear gas.

On the fourth day of protests, the Ohio National Guard confronted an estimated 2,000 protesters in the center of campus. The wind that day made tear gas ineffective, and the protesters threw back taunts. Soon, their ammo escalated to rocks, tear gas canisters and other projectiles, and the guardsmen — reportedly fearing for their lives — opened fire on the protesters.

It is not certain how long the shooting lasted. Estimates vary between 13 seconds and a full minute. However long it was, four students were killed and nine wounded. The shooting of unarmed students shook a nation at a time of divisiveness unseen since the Civil War.

After the historic shootings, Kent State University tended to garner national news coverage whenever tragic incidents occurred on or near its campus. And, like nearly any university of its size, there have been several.

A 1991 drive-by shooting left a 51-year-old campus custodian dead, and in 1992, a graduate student was shot in the chest on university grounds, though she survived the incident. In 2009 a student was beaten to death in a street fight. A gun was fired into the ground on campus during an argument in 2014, and last February an 18-year-old Kent State student was shot to death in an apartment building near campus in a robbery gone wrong.

Whether it’s because of the 1970 tragedies or not, crime at Kent State is covered exceptionally well on a national level, receiving coverage from CBS News, ABC News and USA Today. Despite the fact that the Kent State shootings occurred nearly half a century ago, the name “Kent State” is still intimately intertwined with memories of that tragedy.

Virginia Tech was home to the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history with a death toll of more than eight times that of the Kent State shootings. That’s not easy for the rest of the nation to ignore. But, to echo Sands’ words, “I think what happened on April 16 could have happened on any campus, and it was Virginia Tech.”

Forgetting this tragedy doesn’t seem to be part of the Virginia Tech ethos, either. The annual 3.2 for 32 run drives thousands to the Drillfield, students publicly read the biographies of the 32 lost that day, and rain or shine the candlelight vigil is packed — University Spokesman Mark Owczarski roughly estimated 20,000 would attend this year.

Perhaps it’s this unwillingness to let go that keeps the April 16 shootings so fresh in the nation’s collective consciousness. However, the university administration has made it clear that the Virginia Tech community draws strength from this dark piece of history, and it has no plans to change any time soon.

“I think there are certainly some people that think we ought to somehow forget, but we’re never going to forget,” Sands said. “It’s part of who we are, and it’s part of what brings our community together. I think that it’s become a strength. It’s not something you would wish on any community, but it really is a source of strength.”

President Timothy Sands emphasizes that Virginia Tech will never forget the victims of the April 16 shootings.

Virginia Tech Police Chief Kevin Foust delivers a speech urging community members to not be afraid after leaflets with swastikas drawn on them were found strewn across the lawn of the Chabad house at Virginia Tech, March 20, 2017.ZACK WAJSGRAS / COLLEGIATE TIMES


April 16 is the main reason Chief Foust currently leads the Virginia Tech police force. Called in from the Roanoke FBI office, Foust remembers two things: the cooperation of law enforcement from local up to national and the vigil held the following night, on April 17.

“You kind of had to be there to understand it. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of students, community members, everybody getting on the Drillfield that night to pull together as a community to honor and support those who suffered so greatly,” Foust said. “And that’s the picture you see from time to time, you know, of people holding up the candles … it stretched all the way from Chapel all the way to the far end of the Drillfield. Just thousands of people. I mean it was an incredible thing to see.”

At the end of the day, it’s not possible to lay out all tragedies that affect every college community in a direct comparison. At least not yet. But it would be nearly impossible to visit campus in mid-April and lose yourself in the sea of tens of thousands of Hokies standing in solidarity and consider anything about the community cursed — instead, a different thought naturally comes: “This is home.”