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Lost on Campus

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 20, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- If people noticed anything at all about Cho Seung Hui, it seems, they were struck by his silence. He wouldn't respond in class. He wouldn't talk to his roommates. Making his way across the Virginia Tech campus, he was quiet as a ghost.

But when he was alone, at a keyboard or in front of a camera, he had volumes to say. "You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience," he proclaimed in the video he mailed to NBC News between Act One and Act Two of his rampage. "You thought it was one pathetic boy's life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people."

Who knew the silent man was holding such rage inside? His writing teacher, poet Nikki Giovanni, had more than an inkling; Cho's work was so disturbing and his interactions with female students so creepy -- taking pictures of their legs with his cellphone -- that she had him removed from her class. Lucinda Roy, co-director of the creative writing program, was so concerned about Cho that she alerted campus authorities.

Both women have told reporters that as soon as they heard the perpetrator of Monday's mass shooting described as Asian, they thought of Cho.

Yet it is hard to describe this tragedy as an instance in which the system failed. Giovanni and Roy did everything they could to sound the alarm about a student who seemed profoundly disturbed. In late 2005, when female students complained about "annoying" e-mails and text messages from Cho, campus police interviewed the silent student and had him committed to a psychiatric hospital.

He was quickly released. He was not considered a danger to anyone except, possibly, himself -- and, for all we know, that assessment may have, at the time, been accurate. His mental illness might have been at an earlier stage.

The system seems to have worked pretty much the way it was designed to work. It's just the wrong kind of system.

Eventually there will be many lessons from the tragedy at Virginia Tech, but here is one that already seems clear: Colleges and universities urgently need to reevaluate the way they monitor and care for the mental health of their students.

Early adulthood is the stage at which a number of psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are most commonly diagnosed. Campus counseling services encounter students suffering from depression, attention-deficit disorder and anxiety. On some high-pressure campuses, such as the University of Chicago, students get a day off from classes to learn about suicide prevention.

The day you drop your son or daughter off at college for the first time is, in many ways, the real moment of separation -- the moment at which a child begins to lead his or her life independently. But a college freshman, an adult as far as the law is concerned, is really more of a proto-adult whose development will be substantially influenced by the experiences of the next four years.

There's a fine line that has to be walked. College students need to be independent to have the freedom to experiment and discover who they are. The vast majority thrive when given the chance to make their own decisions, forge new relationships and discover hidden talents.

Some get into trouble, though. And when they do, all that independence works against them.

No one will make you talk to your roommates if you don't want to. No one will make you keep your appointments with a counselor if you don't want to. And because of privacy rules, no one will tell your parents that you're sinking unless you do something that's clearly beyond the pale.

On every campus there are students who don't talk very much, who don't seem to have any friends, who don't go on dates or show up at parties -- students who spend most of their time alone. Only a few of these students suffer from serious mental illnesses, and fewer still pose any danger to themselves or others. But which ones?

Teachers and administrators at Virginia Tech at least were able to identify Cho as deeply troubled. But school policies, state laws and the ethic of unfettered, independent self-exploration -- for most students, one of the great things about American universities -- in this case conspired to let a sick, dangerous man deteriorate to the point where he became a mass murderer. The evidence so far suggests that Cho Seung Hui was not mentally competent to decline the help he so desperately needed.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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