By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Aug. 20 -- The chairman of the panel investigating the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech said Monday that Seung Hui Cho's mental health background could have raised enough red flags to have prevented his rampage but that once the shooting began, it would have been nearly impossible to stop.
W. Gerald Massengill said the panel's report, which is expected to be released next week, will examine the university's response to the shootings, among other issues, but said "it would have been awfully difficult to stop Cho."
"If Cho was to have been stopped, it certainly would have had to happen before the first two hours," the former state police superintendent told reporters during a break in the panel's closed-door meeting Monday.
Cho, 23, of Centreville, killed 32 people and himself in the deadliest shooting attack by an individual in the country's history.
"Had he not fallen through the cracks, maybe this would have turned out differently,'' Massengill said. "The report will show . . . what could have been done differently and what should have been done differently."
The Virginia Tech Review Panel's report, to be released to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, will examine Cho's interaction with the state's mental health system, as well as state gun laws and the university's security and response.
Kaine was given a draft copy of the roughly 300-page document over the weekend. The victims' families will be briefed on the draft report in a telephone conference call tonight. The panel had hoped to release the report to the public Friday, but late Monday, after meeting for nearly 11 hours, Massengill said the group needed more time, and the governor granted it. The panel will meet again Friday.
"It hasn't been one of those days where we've been in there fighting," Massengill said. "It's been really productive conversations."
Several of the victims' families, who declined to comment Monday, have questioned why Virginia Tech did not shut down the campus after Cho killed two people about 7:15 a.m. in the West Ambler Johnston Hall dormitory. Two and a half hours later, Cho appeared at Norris Hall, an academic building, and killed 30 people before he shot himself as police closed in.
"We are identifying the facts," Massengill said. "If someone wants to take those facts and decide where there is liability or where someone was remiss in their job . . . that's up to someone else."
A Pennsylvania-based victim advocacy group, Security on Campus, filed a complaint Monday asking the Department of Education to investigate whether Virginia Tech complied with a federal law requiring prompt warnings to students when they are in danger.
Massengill said it would have been difficult to stop Cho after the first shootings because no one knew who he was.
"He was just another student," he said.
The eight-member panel met at the University of Virginia along with lawyers and staff, reviewing the draft report and ensuring that it would meet legal standards and would have the "right tone," Massengill said.
Members, including law enforcement and higher education experts, closed the meeting to review private academic, mental health and criminal investigatory records.
"All we can tell you is everyone is engaged,'' said member Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania and former Homeland Security secretary. He called the group's discussion "provocative in the best sense."
Other members declined to comment, referring questions to the chairman.
"This report is going to have plenty of details that will address issues and concerns," Massengill said.
The panel, appointed by Kaine shortly after the shootings, has reviewed information including the timeline of the shootings, Cho's mental health and background, and educational laws and policies. Cho's family cooperated with the panel.
Members have held four public hearings.
"There are loads of important issues that need to be discussed," said Philip S. Schaenman, the panel's staff director. "Things of national importance."
Virginia Tech officials are looking to the report to better guide schools on dealing with students like Cho.
The university is also conducting an investigation, and the Virginia State Police are leading a criminal inquiry.
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.