Panel: Va. Tech Failed to Respond to Cho Warning Signs

By Amy Gardner, Debbi Wilgoren and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 30, 2007; 11:50 AM

The long-awaited report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel contains a wealth of new details about the life of Seung Hui Cho, the troubled 23-year-old senior who murdered 32 students and faculty before turning a gun on himself. It cites confusion about state and federal privacy laws, weak enforcement of regulations over the purchase of guns and inadequate funding of the state's mental health system as contributing factors to the deadly rampage.

But the report -- released late Wednesday -- reserves its most damning conclusions for Virginia Tech itself, accusing the university of a systemic failure to respond to Cho's two-year history of mental health troubles on campus or to communicate effectively on April 16.

"Numerous incidents occurred that were clear warnings of mental instability," the report states. "Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these incidents, the university did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information, and no one connected all the dots."

The 249-page report is based on thousands of pages of records and more than 200 interviews, including a three-hour meeting with Cho's parents and sister. It portrays the shooter's family as attentive and aware of his troubles from an early age. Both the family and the Fairfax County public schools intervened and sought treatment for Cho throughout his childhood for depression, selective mutism and the expression of suicidal and homicidal ideas.

But treatment abruptly stopped at Virginia Tech, which Cho's parents and counselors discouraged him from attending because of its size and the risk that Cho would not receive the attention he needed. The report details an abundant history of troubling behavior on campus beginning in 2005, including violent writings, threatening behavior and disturbing comments or emails to students.

Despite attempts by professors to intervene, two student complaints that prompted investigation by campus police and Cho's visits to the Cook Counseling Center, no one at Virginia Tech put it all together. The report cites Virginia Tech's "confusion" regarding state and federal privacy laws as a critical factor in the university's poor response to Cho's troubles.

Such laws provide "ample leeway" to share information in potentially dangerous situations, the report states. But in the fall of 2006 -- after Cho had already been involved with police and received care at Cook -- an associate dean reported more disturbing behavior but found "no mention of mental health issues or police reports" regarding Cho, the report said.

A frail, silent child

The report portrays Cho as a frail, silent and at times disturbed child. It paints a heartbreaking portrait of his parents and sister, who offered their full cooperation to the panel and who said they still could not fathom the startling difference between the son and brother they loved and the premeditated killer Cho became.

"They will mourn, until the day they die, the deaths and injuries of those who suffered at the hands of their son," the report states.

With their daughter acting as interpreter, Cho's parents traced their son's troubles to serious health problems that began at 9 months, when the family was living in South Korea. Cho was hospitalized with whooping cough and pneumonia. At age 3, he underwent several serious heart procedures, possibly including a catheterization, which his parents said traumatized him.

From that date, Cho did not like to be touched, his mother recalled. Cho preferred not to speak even as a young boy and would become sweaty and anxious when asked to, his parents said. The condition was later diagnosed as selective mutism.

In 1999, an art therapist began observing signs of depression. A month later, following the murders at Columbine High School, Cho wrote a disturbing paper in English class indicating that he wanted to "repeat" the shooting. Cho's parents followed the advice of his therapist and took their son for a psychiatric evaluation.

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