Virginia Tech Criticized For Response To Shootings

State-appointed panel finds that school administrators could have done more to stop Seung-Hui Cho.

Officials at Virginia Tech could have done more to prevent the shootings on the school's campus in April if they had acted faster — that conclusion is among the findings in a report just released by the Virginia state panel that investigated the murder of 32 people on the campus by student Seung-Hui Cho.

The report from the panel convened by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine found that school administrators misunderstood federal privacy laws on the sharing of students' mental health information, which could have alerted them earlier to Cho's serious mental-health issues (see "33 Dead In Shootings At Virginia Tech"). The panel also criticized school administrators for not issuing a campus-wide alert and lockdown after Cho shot and killed two students at the West Ambler Johnston dorm on the morning of April 16, though the report conceded that doing so was probably impractical and would not likely have stopped a determined Cho from carrying out his rampage.

"There does not seem to be a plausible scenario of a university response to the double homicide that could have prevented the tragedy of considerable magnitude on April 16," the panel stated, according to a copy of the document obtained by The New York Times. "Cho had started on a mission of fulfilling a fantasy of revenge." Fewer lives might have been lost, however, the report concluded, if the school had canceled classes and issued an alert after the first two murders were discovered. It also faulted the university for downplaying the seriousness of the incident by referring to it as a "routine police procedure," even after officials learned the full nature of the murders.

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger — whose firing has been demanded by some students' parents — held a news conference Thursday in which he insisted that he does not bear responsibility for the tragedy, The Associated Press reports. "No plausible scenario was made for how this horror could have been prevented once [Cho] began that morning," he said. "I am not aware of anything the police learned that would have indicated that a mass murder was imminent. The panel researched reports of multiple shootings on campuses for the past 40 years and no scenario was found in which the first murder was followed by a second elsewhere on campus. Nowhere."

The university released its own report on August 22, addressing the response to the massacre and recommending changes to campus security and mental health services (see "Virginia Tech Report Suggests Classroom Locks, Mass-Notification System").

Among the missed opportunities to head off the rampage, according to the state's 147-page report (which was compiled by an eight-member panel of security, mental health and education specialists), was the failure by a campus counseling center to schedule a follow-up appointment for outpatient mental-health counseling after a judge had ordered Cho to undergo treatment following suicidal statements Cho made in the presence of his roommates. Cho was given a pre-appointment interview, but a follow-up appointment for counseling was never scheduled. The report also notes that Cho's parents were never told that he had expressed suicidal thoughts or was committed to a mental health facility for a short time.

Campus police knew about Cho's stay in a mental-health facility and had responded to reports of his inappropriate behavior, but that information was never shared with the experts on campus who work with troubled students, according to the report. University officials mistakenly believed that federal privacy laws forbade them from sharing the information about Cho's mental-health problems with local, state and campus security officials.

In another missed opportunity, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Cho wrote a paper for a fiction-writing class a year before the shootings that had "eerie" parallels to the scene inside Norris Hall, where Cho killed 30 students and faculty before committing suicide. One source who read Cho's paper said it was a "kind of blueprint" for the shootings, with the protagonist planning a mass school murder, though he does not follow through on it.

Some of the story does, however, echo the words Cho spoke on the videotape he recorded the morning of the shootings. The writings so disturbed Cho's Intro to Short Fiction professor, Bob Hicok, that he and the English department's chairwoman discussed removing Cho from the class; they eventually decided to allow him to remain in the course.

Virginia Tech's administration was unaware that officials at Cho's middle school had diagnosed him with an anxiety disorder so severe that he was put into a special education program, the Post reported on Monday. The disorder, called selective mutism, rendered Cho unable to speak in social settings, so school officials developed a program to help ease his fears as well as provide him with private therapy for his underlying anxiety. He also reportedly became obsessed with the Columbine High School shootings at the time, and officials saw signs of homicidal and suicidal thoughts in his writing, leading him to receive psychiatric counseling and medication for anxiety, which appeared to help.

Though the state panel found that the local and campus police responses to the shootings were well coordinated, it stated that university police made a tactical error in concluding that the first two killings in the dorm were related to a domestic dispute, which led them to pursue a suspect they thought had left campus, wasting precious time in their investigation.

The one thing the Kaine report did not clear up was the central question still vexing police: Why did Cho choose the first two victims in the dorm before moving onto Norris Hall? According to the Times, it also side-stepped the issue of gun control, citing the "deep divisions in American society regarding the ready availability of rapid-fire weapons and high-capacity magazines." It recommended, however, that the Virginia Legislature establish the right for every university in Virginia to regulate the possession of firearms on campus.

[This story was originally published at 12:39 p.m. ET on 08.30.2007]