By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007
BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 22 -- Virginia Tech needs to improve building security, enhance its campus-wide alert system and better monitor troubled students to prevent a tragedy similar to the April 16 massacre of 32 students and faculty, according to a school review of the incident released Wednesday.
The report recommends that classrooms be equipped with electronic banners that would alert students to emergencies, that message boards be placed in hallways to provide critical information and that an electronic "people locator system" be created so that students and others could inform people of their whereabouts. Soon after the massacre, the university came under fire for not better alerting students and others to the potential dangers they faced.
The report also says that the university should add locks on the inside of classroom doors to help prevent another killer from bursting in.
"There's little doubt that April 16th has changed public expectations of the higher education community," Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said Wednesday at a news conference. "We're going to do what's necessary."
Steger said that the school will evaluate the recommendations provided by the committees and institute them based on cost and other factors over the coming months.
The three review committees that presented the report were formed by Steger days after Seung Hui Cho killed students and faculty in separate events over two hours, in what is now considered the worst shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history.
The report is different from another investigation into the shootings ordered by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and led by former state police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill. That report is expected to be released next week.
The Virginia Tech report does not assess the actions of police, university officials or others, but rather focuses on how the university could prevent similar tragedies.
The findings, which were submitted to Steger last week, focus on three critical areas: how the university's student counseling system can better track troubled students; how officials can better alert and secure students, faculty and staff during emergencies; and how to improve emergency communications during incidents. The study also points to a need for more training for university staff in privacy issues as they relate to campus safety.
The report found that "a new structure is needed to complement the work" of mental health counseling teams, especially for "students who may pose a threat to others." It also recommends that a system be designed to address complex cases such as Cho's. "The team would be charged with conducting a comprehensive fact-based description of a distressed student and empowered to act with authority," the report said.
In 2005, Cho, an English major at Virginia Tech, had frightened teachers and classmates with macabre and violent writings. He referred to himself as Question Mark, never made eye contact and rarely spoke. Several of his professors referred him to the student counseling center after talking with him in private meetings. But it wasn't until two undergraduate women complained that Cho sent unwanted instant messages and left cryptic lines from "Romeo and Juliet" on their dry-erase boards that Cho came to the attention of police. Although the girls decided not to press charges, police met with Cho on Dec. 13 and warned him to leave the women alone.
University officials would not say whether Cho had been identified by the existing unit assigned to monitor students deemed "at risk."
While not mentioning Cho by name, the report states that faculty and staff members must be more attuned to student writings, particularly if they are violent, and that staff must be better trained to deal with students who are resistant to outreach.
Officials also said that school employees must do a better job of understanding privacy laws so that records can be shared when students pose a danger to themselves or others. It is unclear in Cho's case whether information was shared among university officials concerning his disturbing interactions with some faculty and student counseling staff.
In addition, the report found that the university can play a more robust role in monitoring students who have been hospitalized or evaluated for a mental illness by community health-care centers, as Cho had been. Chris Flynn, director of the school's Cook Counseling Center, said that his staff will take a more active role in tracking students in the mental health system. Cho is thought to have been referred to the student clinic after he was released from an overnight stay at an outside mental health clinic. Police sources have said that he never received treatment.
The report also suggests specific improvements to campus security measures during an emergency, though it does not criticize local responders or police procedures after the first set of shootings, which occurred in a dormitory.
Angry parents, despondent students and some security advocates have said that the campus should have been shut down immediately, students waved off and professors sent home before Cho could kill more people in his second shooting at Norris Hall, an academic building across campus.
Campus officials said they thought that they had assessed the situation adequately based on the information at the time and that thousands of students were either on campus or headed there and that it would not have been possible to warn them. They said they never considered shutting down the campus and said that doing so might have resulted in even more bloodshed.
University officials stood by their decision during the afternoon news conference.
"A lockdown is simply not feasible on a campus the size of a small city," Steger said. "However, it is feasible to harden or secure individual buildings and other facilities. Our review addresses this approach."
The mother of one student who was shot but survived said she was "infuriated" by what she heard at Wednesday's news conference. Suzanne Grimes, who lives near Pittsburgh, said she does not understand why classes were not canceled after the initial early morning shooting in the dorm.
"There is a big difference between locking down campus and canceling classes," said Grimes, the mother of senior Kevin Sterne, 22, who was shot twice in the leg. If classes had been canceled, "30 people wouldn't have needlessly died and 20 or more wouldn't have been injured, and my son wouldn't be where he is right now. I just wonder if the people who made the decision not to cancel classes have a conscience," she said.
Sterne, who lost more than two-thirds of his blood in the shooting, has a bullet lodged in his femur and has nerve damage down his right leg. He is a graduate student in electrical engineering at Virginia Tech.
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.