Unknown to Va. Tech, Cho Had a Disorder

By Brigid Schulte and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 27, 2007

Fairfax County school officials determined that Seung Hui Cho suffered from an anxiety disorder so severe that they put him in special education and devised a plan to help, according to sources familiar with his history, but Virginia Tech was never told of the problem.

The disorder made Cho unable to speak in social settings and was deemed an emotional disability, the sources said. When he stopped getting the help that Fairfax was providing, Cho became even more isolated and suffered severe ridicule during his four years at Virginia Tech, experts suggested. In his senior year, Cho killed 32 students and faculty members and himself in the deadliest shooting by an individual in U.S. history.

The condition, called selective mutism, is a symptom of a larger social anxiety disorder. It prompted the Fairfax school system to develop a detailed special education plan to help ease Cho's fears so he might begin to talk more openly, the sources said.

Part of his individualized program in Fairfax excused Cho from participating in class discussions, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality of Cho's records. Another part of the plan called for private therapy to resolve his underlying anxiety. The therapy and special provisions were "apparently effective," the sources said.

But once Cho left the safe and highly structured high school setting that had created a cocoon of support, officials at Virginia Tech were never told of his condition and never addressed the issue, the sources said. Since the April 16 shootings, stories have emerged from Cho's teachers and classmates at Virginia Tech. They say it was common for professors to call on Cho and for him to remain silent. The teachers would become angry, and students would taunt him. The severely isolated Cho began to refer to himself as "?". All of this would have worsened his deep-seated anxiety, experts said.

"Think of the image of the little kid at the end of the diving board, just frozen. They can't move no matter how much we tell them to jump," said Robert Schum, a clinical psychologist and expert in selective mutism. "In a classroom, they feel threatened. They're trapped. And the more people push, the more it exacerbates the anxiety."

Professors and school administrators at Virginia Tech could not have known of Cho's emotional disability -- Fairfax officials were forbidden from telling them. Federal privacy and disability laws prohibit high schools from sharing with colleges private information such as a student's special education coding or disability, according to high school and college guidance and admissions officials. Those laws also prohibit colleges from asking for such information.

The only way Virginia Tech officials would have known about Cho's anxiety and selective mutism would have been if Cho or his parents told them about it and asked for accommodations to help him, as he had received in Fairfax. Cho's disability was first reported in the Wall Street Journal and will be explored further when a panel appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) releases an investigative report about the shootings.

Although the only way college officials could have known about Cho's problem would have been from Cho, experts said that asking for help is an almost impossible task for someone with selective mutism.

"Children with selective mutism don't want to be the center of attention. They don't like to sit on Santa's lap. They don't like their photo taken on picture day. They don't want kids to sing to them at their birthday celebration. They just want to be left alone," Schum said. "So when you put the responsibility on them and ask them to draw attention to themselves by asking for help . . . that's really tough."

Cho's parents, although cooperative with Fairfax school officials, might not have fully understood what was wrong and that their son needed help in college as well. As recently as last summer, Cho's mother had sought out members of One Mind Church in Woodbridge to purge him of what the pastor there called the "demonic power" possessing him.

Cho's family said he was always a quiet, reserved child. After he emigrated with his parents from South Korea when he was 8, a great-aunt in Korea said the boy's mother told her he had autism. "We knew something was wrong," the aunt, Kim Yang Soon, said in April.

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