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.
Classmates from Stone Middle School in Centreville remember some students making fun of Cho and his silence.
"He never tried to say anything," former classmate Sam Linton said. "Even when the teachers called roll, he wouldn't say 'Present' or raise his hand. He just looked straight ahead. Someone else would have to say 'Seung's here.' "
By the time Cho entered Westfield High School in Chantilly, classmate Chris Davids remembers an uncomfortable sophomore English class. Students were taking turns reading aloud from works of Shakespeare. When it was Cho's turn, he sat in silence. The teacher began to cajole him. Silence. Students began to snicker. The teacher became angry. Silence. She threatened him with an F. Finally, Cho began to read in a strange mumble.
"That snickering turned to full-out laughing," Davids said. "There were several comments made, such as 'Go Back to ESL' -- English as a Second Language class -- 'Learn how to read,' or 'Go back to China.' "
Not long after that incident, Fairfax school officials realized that Cho was not merely painfully shy. Nor was he being recalcitrant or passive-aggressive. He was literally too paralyzed to speak. They put him in special education and devised a number of accommodations to help him, sources said. School officials said Cho would no longer be required to answer teachers' questions or participate in classroom discussions. Davids said that he does not recall Cho ever being called on after that incident.
Cho was also given speech therapy. His parents were encouraged to put him in private counseling, which they did. School officials suggested that Cho join school clubs. He joined the band, where students soon began referring to him derisively as "trombone boy." He also joined the science club.
Davids, another member of the science club, said that although Cho came to many of the club's meetings and hung out, he never spoke. "The teacher who was the sponsor for the club would ask him if he wanted to participate in whatever we were doing, then leave him alone," Davids said. "If he wanted to participate, he would come over and do so; otherwise, he would just sit at a desk and stare at the desk."
Although most students are given special education services because their disability makes it more difficult for them to do well academically, that is generally not the case with selective mutism, Schum said. Indeed, classmates remember Cho as intelligent and capable of getting good grades.
Fairfax school officials would not speak about Cho directly, citing privacy laws. They said, however, that a team of psychologists had studied selective mutism in detail, worked with several children and felt it had made "significant progress" with the students.
Ellie Barnes, director of student services for the Fairfax schools, said the best treatment for the disorder includes private counseling to unearth the emotional issues or anxiety that is causing it. The county complements that with "desensitization therapy," exposing children to their phobia in small increments "so they can understand the irrationalization of that phobia."
But none of that care and level of detail was transferred to Virginia Tech.
Richard Crowley, coordinator of guidance services for Fairfax, said high schools generally send transcripts to colleges with only a student's courses, grades and test scores. Race, sex, religion and even the number of times a student has been suspended are considered optional pieces of information that a student can choose to disclose. The only way college officials could tell if a student had been in special education would be by looking at the classes the student took. Basic Skills is a fairly common special education class.
"We don't send anything that has to do with special education," Crowley said. "If the parent, who has the authority, wants us to disclose to colleges that the student was in a special-ed program, we can do that and send whatever records they want. But that doesn't happen very often."
The reason, explained Barmak Nassirian, with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, is that in the competitive admissions process, students don't want to be at a disadvantage. As recently as 2003, parental pressure caused the College Board to stop flagging SAT scores for students who had been given special education accommodations while taking the test.
Moreover, many colleges say they don't want to know because of the potential liability. "In soliciting a student's history of psychiatric treatment or diagnoses by treating physicians, you basically open a Pandora's box," Nassirian said. "Even if you should decide, for reasons that have nothing to do with medical circumstances, not to accept a student, you most certainly will have a case that will be litigated."
For students who are accepted and disclose their disability, most colleges and universities have services to provide appropriate accommodations, said Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University.
Schum said selective mutism, which can be treated successfully, had never been associated with violent behavior. Most of the children, teens and young adults who suffer from the disorder -- about 1 percent of the U.S. population -- are simply born that way. They come from families where anxieties tend to run high.
One technique Schum said he has found particularly effective in helping children overcome their mutism is videotaping. Children can be videotaped reading aloud at home and then can take the tape to their teacher to be graded. Or the student can be videotaped giving a show-and-tell presentation to share with the class.
So Schum was not at all surprised when the world finally heard Cho speak in a setting of his choosing, on the strange and violent tape he sent to NBC News. "He was not autistic. He clearly had the capability of talking to people," Schum said. "We saw that on the video."
Staff writer Sari Horwitz and staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Meg Smith contributed to this report.