The Failure at Virginia Tech

Friday, August 31, 2007

IN A SOCIETY engorged with information, the tragedy and the outrage of last spring's mass murder at Virginia Tech were compounded by the fact that information about the murderer was blocked, stifled, ignored and suppressed in the months and years leading up to his crime. It is, of course, impossible to say whether Seung Hui Cho, the deranged student who killed 32 people and then himself in his campus rampage in April, might have been stopped if local and university officials had acted differently. He alone bears responsibility for the slaughter. But the unavoidable conclusion of the study submitted this week by the Virginia Tech Review Panel is that while numerous and varied warning signs were documented and known to authorities on campus and off, they were not acted on with the urgency, judgment and alertness that a university owes its students.

The panel, chaired by W. Gerald Massengill, a former state police superintendent, properly examined the chain of events on April 16, when the massacre took place. It concluded that the carnage might have been contained, and some lives saved, had police quickly issued a campuswide alert in the morning, after the first two murders were reported in a dormitory -- but before Cho undertook the bulk of his killing two hours later at a classroom building. It faulted investigators for leaping to a premature and erroneous hypothesis about the killer's identity.

But as the report made clear, by the time Cho started firing, there was probably nothing that could have prevented him from inflicting great harm. The larger failure had already taken place -- a failure on the part of Cho's parents, professors, university administrators and local officials to identify the danger posed by a student who provided plenty of clues that he was a time bomb.

The fault here lies both in laws that limit the ability of educational institutions to share pertinent information regarding mental health and the misunderstanding of those laws by university officials. The review panel's report makes clear that while the laws are restrictive in some instances, they would not have prevented much greater sharing of information than took place in Cho's case. Here was a student whose writing and behavior in class alarmed several professors; whose inappropriate actions toward female students led to complaints to campus police; whose inability to interact socially or even to speak in class had been known and treated in high school; and whose suicidal statements triggered a psychiatric examination and a judge's order that he receive outpatient care. And yet the university did not act.

In the aftermath of such a devastating tragedy, it's easy to say, but nonetheless true, that public safety must trump privacy rights, particularly in a university setting where the population is young and vulnerable. Cho's dysfunction had been noted and treated by his high school counselors in Fairfax County, but they never communicated his condition to Virginia Tech. That makes no sense. As his problems intensified in his junior and senior years of college, his parents were never alerted. That makes no sense. Cho spoke with employees of the campus counseling center three times in 15 days in late 2005 and early 2006, but they failed to follow up and in fact treated his case lackadaisically. That makes no sense. Even when it came to sharing information with the review panel, university officials and state police failed to provide all relevant information. That makes no sense either.

The report is now on the desk of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who charged the panel with its mission. He has embraced its findings and conclusions. It will be up to him to seek legal and administrative means to redress not only a failure of laws but of a cultural attitude that walls off mental illness and the information that is vital to dealing with it.

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