Violent, disturbing writings. Anti-social behavior. Stalking. An aversion to looking people in the eye. Suicidal thoughts.
Many of the warning signs that characterize school shooters are present in the emerging profile of Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui, who made some of his peers and professors so frightened or uncomfortable that they reported him to authorities on several occasions.
The description can also be applied to thousands and thousands of people all over the world.
While acquaintances now say they weren’t surprised to learn that Cho was responsible for Monday’s slaying of 32 students and professors — and the horrors in the materials he sent to NBC leave little question about his mental state (see ” ’When The Time Came, I Did It,’ Cho Says In Newly Released Video” ) — he had done nothing prior to the shootings to justify him being arrested or institutionalized. (He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 2005, but according to The New York Times, despite efforts by campus police and a counselor to have Cho involuntarily committed, a judge declined to do so and instead ordered outpatient treatment.)
The disturbing trail of clues and opportunities to intervene beg the question: Where is the line between merely strange and potentially dangerous behavior?
Eight years after the Columbine shootings — years filled with a grim trail of similar assaults by disturbed young men sharing some of the same traits as Cho — Cho’s warning signs led several people to attempt to intervene and persuade him to seek help.
But from juvenile psychologists to former FBI profilers, experts say the sad reality is that we’re not much closer to being able to predict these events. And in light of Monday’s shooting, we’re forced once again to re-examine what we know about the red flags and what steps we should take when we see them.
“Even though [mass murderers] share some of these characteristics, most of the people who share them don’t become violent like this,” said Patrick Tolan, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. Tolan said the crucial factor is figuring out which of the thousands of people who harbor these violent tendencies might explode.
“The myth of the nice guy who explodes is not the case,” he said. “There’s almost always a history of being socially isolated and rejected, problems with rumination and insults; aggression and often problems with failing in school and not getting along with other people. But lots of people have those issues and they don’t do something like that. What we can’t figure out is, what makes them go that far?”
Former roommates described Cho as an intensely quiet, blank-faced person who sat alone at meals and would rarely speak, interact or make eye contact with those around him.
In October of 2005, the head of the school’s English department, Lucinda Roy, was contacted by poet and professor Nikki Giovanni, who told CNN she was so disturbed by Cho’s violent, “mean” poems that she threatened to quit her position if he was not removed from her class. Roy told The New York Times that she got no response from Cho when she confronted him about the “veiled threat” in the writings and allegations that he was taking inappropriate pictures of female classmates from under his desk. So she contacted the campus police, counseling services, student affairs and officials in her department.
The threats, however, were not explicit enough for action to be taken against him, so Roy, who said she got no response from Cho when she offered to go to counseling with him, was given the option of dropping him from the class or tutoring him one-on-one. She agreed to do the latter and during the ensuing three sessions, she said, Cho always wore sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, and “seemed to be crying behind his sunglasses.”
Roy was so nervous about her sessions with Cho that she worked out a secret code word with her assistant that, when mentioned, was a signal to call campus security. Combined with a recommendation from campus police for him to seek counseling after a pair of 2005 stalking accusations from female students, experts said the students and faculty of Virginia Tech acted as they should have when confronted with a student displaying such warning signs.
However, strange behavior or a vague sense of dread about a person is not a crime or overt threat, noted Scott Allen, a police psychologist with the Miami-Dade Police Department and an expert in hostage-negotiation and profiling serial killers.
“This is a low-probability event,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that often and because there are hundreds of people with similar profiles, it’s very difficult on a societal level to do anything, because that person has not done anything up to that moment that’s a direct threat to themselves or others.”
Civil liberties are also intrinsically involved, Allen pointed out: Do we want to live in a society where we’re more intrusive toward the mentally ill or those suspected of being mentally ill — or even people who are just odd, as opposed to potentially dangerous?
“The problem comes down to false positives,” he said. “You will be making errors in saying a person is potentially dangerous when they’re not, and then they will be stigmatized or have their rights restricted for an incorrect [reason]. It’s very difficult to have a system where you’re taking away a person’s rights [based] on a theory or a hunch.”
One of the greatest indicators of violence is previous violence, Dr. Robert Irvin, medical director of a long-term residential treatment program that is part of the Bipolar and Psychotic Disorders Program at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, told WebMD. “Lacking that, we cannot say who will be violent and who will not,” he said.
And in Cho’s case, the lack of a violent history made it difficult for those around him to take any legal action or force him into treatment based on his peculiar demeanor — especially in light of a law passed in Virginia just last month that forbids colleges from expelling or punishing a student for attempting suicide or reporting suicidal thoughts.
In an interview with CNN, two of Cho’s roommates, identified as Andy and John, said when they heard the description of the gunman they suspected Cho, given the “big warning signs” they’d seen from the young man they described as being “like a shadow.” Descriptions of Cho depict him as speaking barely above a whisper (when he spoke at all) and generally hiding behind dark sunglasses and a maroon VT baseball hat. Aside from some books and a laptop computer, his side of his dorm room — where he often sat mutely staring into space for hours — was devoid of any decorations.
While signing in for British literature class in 2005, Cho signed his name with a question mark, according to The Washington Post. “Even the teacher laughed at him,” former Virginia Tech student Charlotte Peterson said. “Nobody understood him.”
Even with all these disturbing bits of detail, Eugene A. Rugala, a former FBI behavioral profiler and consultant on workplace violence, said the reality is: If someone is intent on committing an act like this, it’s very difficult to stop them. And like the other experts, he said that civil-liberties laws limit what officials can do unless there’s an overt threat.
“We’ve come a long way since the initial rash of high school shootings in the 1990s,” Rugala said. “Schools have become more sensitive to behavioral issues, put in place crisis-management plans and security measures. And the teachers did seem to do the right thing when they saw [Cho’s] writings. But you have to see a threat to [act], and even when you do see a threat, it’s almost too late.”
In some ways, the fact that students, professors, police and administrators cannot do very much when they see warning signs is a price we pay for living in a free society, Rugala said. Besides, he added, despite his years of work covering these types of incidents, there really is no “profile” for killers like Cho.
“I’m not surprised by what I’m seeing because there are behaviors that are somewhat consistent,” he said. “But there are always differences — and you can’t put people in a box. If what they’re saying about the writings is true, it’s consistent with other signs. These individuals stay to themselves and they usually blame others for their problems. We call them ’injustice collectors’ — any slight or issue against them becomes magnified. Couple that with mental illness or depression and the availability of weapons, and you can have a dangerous mix.”
MTV News originally spoke with Rugala before Cho’s package to NBC was reported, but Rugala said its contents only solidified his assessment. “The writings are similar to what I saw at Columbine, and it suggests further that he was more potentially mentally ill than most people thought,” Rugala said. “It reinforces that he was an injustice collector and he had persecution issues and was not taking responsibility for his actions. This was a kid who was powerless in life, and what better way to get power than to commit the most egregious act of mass murder in the country’s history?”
All of the experts quoted in this article agreed that vigilance is key and that students, whether in high school or college, should not hesitate to express their fears or concerns to authorities or administrators.
“Let [a supervisor] know,” Tolan said. “It’s better to say something and have a friend get upset than do nothing.”
Read “Students From Across U.S. Respond To Shootings: ’It Is Beyond Unsettling’ “ , “On Virginia Tech Campus: ’I Can’t Believe This Happened Here’ “ , “Gunshots ’Sounded Like A Hammer': Virginia Tech Students Speak About Shootings” and ” ’People Are Missing': VT Student Reflects On Loss Of Friend” for firsthand accounts from the Virginia Tech campus and additional student reactions.
Go to “Virginia Tech Students Reach Out To One Another” and “Virtual Memorial, MySpace Pages Help VT Mourners Cope Online” to find out how students are coping with the tragedy.