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.

The report also describes intervals where Cho seemed to respond well to the treatment he was receiving. A brief regimen of anti-depressants ended after it was deemed successful.

And a high school writing assignment about hobbies and interests reveals the inclinations of a typical adolescent: "I like to listen to talk shows and alternative stations, and I like action movies," Cho wrote. "My favorite movie is X-Men, favorite actor is Nicolas Cage, favorite book is Night Over Water, favorite band is U2, favorite sport is basketball, favorite team is Portland Trailblazers, favorite food is pizza, and favorite color is green."

Westfield High School in Centreville made special accommodations to help Cho succeed in class. He graduated with a grade point average of 3.52 in an honors program, and scored 540 verbal and 620 math on his SATs.

These scores were the basis of his admission to Virginia Tech. But what Tech did not know was that Cho had not been graded on class participation. In addition, Virginia Tech does not require letters of recommendation, a personal essay or personal interviews in its admissions procedures.

Cho's guidance counselor recommended that he attend a small school close to home to ease the transition, and Cho's parents agreed, but Cho insisted on attending Tech.

His high school did not check off the appropriate box on his transcript to indicate that he had received special education services, and Virginia Tech received no information about Cho's psychiatric problems or the treatment he had received over the years.

The report recommends that state and local education officials consider whether safety concerns should outweigh privacy concerns in determining whether the transmission of such information should be required.

"The panel hopes that this issue begins to be debated fully in the public realm," the report states. "Perhaps students should be required to submit records of emotional or mental disturbance and any communicable diseases after they have been admitted but before they enroll at a college or university."

During Cho's first semester, his parents visited once a week--driving there and back on Sundays, the only day they did not work at their dry cleaning business. Cho attained good grades in his first and second years. He received no counseling during that time.

Virginia Tech's Response

The report says Virginia Tech never informed Cho's parents of his mental deterioration in fall 2005, including his commitment to a psychiatric hospital and appearance in court. Cho, too, refused to tell his parents what was happening.

The report levies particularly harsh criticism at the campus counseling center, which it says "failed for lack of resources, incorrect interpretation of privacy laws, and passivity." Cho first contacted the center in the fall of 2005, after two female students complained about him. He made a third visit after a suitemate reported suicidal behavior and a judge ordered outpatient treatment. The center later received a psychiatric summary for Cho, but took no follow-up action. The panel's report said the center lost its records of the "minimal" treatment that Cho received there.

While many different officials and professors at the university were aware of Cho's problems, the report states, those people did not always share information.

"Universities should recognize their responsibility to a young, vulnerable population and promote the sharing of information internally, and with parents, when significant circumstances pertaining to health and safety arise," the report says.

Once the shooting began, the panel found, campus police were too quick to focus on the boyfriend of Cho's first victim as a potential suspect; much too slow to inform the campus that a shooting had occurred; and hampered by their inability to rapidly send out a campuswide alert.

"The university administration failed to notify students and staff of a dangerous situation in a timely manner," the report states. "The first message sent by the university to students could have been sent at least an hour earlier and been more specific."

At the same time, the report praised campus and local police for responding quickly to the later shootings at Norris Hall (they were already gathered in large numbers at West Ambler because of the earlier shootings) and for working well together -- likely a result of joint training sessions in the past.

The panel questioned the response of an unnamed faculty member at Norris Hall who found a note containing a bomb threat that Cho attached to the doors of the building after chaining them shut.

The note warned that a bomb would go off if anyone removed the chains. University rules require reporting such threats to police immediately. But several minutes passed while the professor took the note to the dean of engineering's office on the building's third floor. Before the police could be called, the shooting began.

Federal and State Law

The report cites several problems with federal and state law that contributed to the tragedy:

A variety of Virginia Tech officials were worried about Cho, but did not share information with Cho's parents or each other because they thought federal and state privacy laws prohibited it. However the panel found that privacy laws were often misinterpreted, and would have allowed a broader conversation about his mental state.

The Virginia Tech Police Department for example, could have told university administrators and Cho's parents that Cho had been held for a commitment hearing. But police officials did not do so for fear of violating privacy regulations.

The panel found "widespread lack of understanding, conflicting practice, and laws that were poorly designed to accomplish their goals." In general, the report noted, privacy laws provide exceptions when there are concerns about public safety.

Federal gun laws should have prohibited Cho from buying firearms since he had been judged a danger to himself and ordered to undergo outpatient mental health care. However the state of Virginia was responsible for collecting the information assembled in a federal database and used to vet gun purchases.

Virginia law at the time did not require outpatient psychiatric orders to be reported; as a result, when two gun companies ran background checks on Cho, the purchases were authorized. A gubernatorial order has since closed that loophole.

Though federal law technically also prohibited Cho from purchasing the 400 rounds of ammunition used in the assault, no background checks for such purchases are required.

"Cho was not legally authorized to purchase his firearms, but was easily able to do so," the report stated.

What we still don't know

Despite its breadth and specificity, some pretty big questions remain. Among them: why Cho targeted West Ambler Johnston and Norris halls, and why he picked that day for the massacre?

"Cho's motives for the WAJ or Norris Hall shootings are unknown to the police or the panel," the report says. "Cho's writings and videotaped pronouncements do not explain why he struck when and where he did."

The report speculates that the first shootings may have been "practice" for what came next; Cho also could have been trying to create a diversion, although in actuality he succeeded in drawing more police to campus before beginning his second attack.

Another mystery is how Cho got into West Ambler Johnston Hall to commit the double homicide. Although he lived in another dorm, his mailbox was located in the lobby of West Ambler Johnston, so his student pass card would unlock the door -- but only after 7:30 a.m.

Cho entered the building somewhat earlier than that, in time to shoot Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark about 7:15. The report speculates that Cho may have been let into the building by a student who was exiting or entering, but not student interviewed by the panel "remembers having done so, or admits it."

Even though Cho's shoes and clothing were bloodied, and he left a trail of bloodied footprints, no one remembers seeing him leave the dorm after the shootings, either.

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