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Virginia Tech Anguishes Over Missed Signals

Date Published:

Apr 21, 2007 03:00 AM


Source: Associated Press via Washington Post

BLACKSBURG,Va. — The student slouched into his chair, his face wrapped insunglasses, the brim of his baseball cap pulled down so low his eyeswere almost lost. The Virginia Tech professor who took a seat acrossfrom him did so because there didn’t really seem to be any other option.

Butin three, hour-long talks that began that October day, Lucinda Roytentatively edged away from the lesson plan for her class of one,moving beyond poetry and drawing the darkly troubled student, Seung-HuiCho, into a tortured and all-too-brief conversation about the humanneed for friendship and the pain of being trapped inside oneself.

Lookingback, it may have been the closest anyone ever came to reaching thebrooding loner before he metamorphosed into the gunman responsible forthe worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

But soon aftertheir meetings in 2005, Roy _ who alerted university officials with herfears about the student and tried to get him into counseling _ losttouch with Cho. The semester ended. She went on leave. They exchangede-mails once or twice. Then nothing.

It is only now that she asks herself: What if …?

Royhas wrestled with that question endlessly in the past few days. And itis a variation of the one that now haunts this quarrystone campus andmountain town, an aching doubt that grows with each new revelation ofmissed signals and miscalculations, twists of fate and legal loopholes,and what appear increasingly like a series of lost opportunities toavert tragedy.

“That’s a question I’ll probably be asking myselfthe rest of my life,” Roy says. “What else could I have done? Could Ihave done more? I think probably all of us could have done more.”

Infact, it is not at all certain what might have stopped Cho fromcarrying out the rampage that left 32 people dead before he killedhimself.

What has become clear is that at numerous points overthe past year and a half, critical incidents took place that at leastgave people around Cho _ as well as administrators, police and mentalhealth providers _ the briefest windows into his state of mind, andperhaps chances to alter his path to destruction.

We wouldn’t behuman if we didn’t second-guess ourselves. And there’s probably no timewhen that is more true than after a tragedy unleashed by a fellow humanbeing.

“I don’t think at the time you could have said he’sdefinitely going to shoot someone. But we had talked about he waslikely to do that if there was someone that was going to do it,” saysAndy Koch a junior from Richmond, Va., who was Cho’s suitemate lastyear.

“The first thing I thought of Monday was Seung … and ifthat’s the first thing you think about, there were definitely somethings that we should have done,” he says. But “I don’t know what wecould have done.”

Many Virginia Tech students say that they donot want to second-guess, that they are content that universityofficials and those who came in contact with Cho did the best theycould to prevent the tragedy.

But the story of the Virginia Techmassacre is a labyrinth of what-ifs. Many of them come withexplanations any reasonable person would understand. There’s just oneproblem with such explanations: They do nothing to explain the horrorof the most unspeakable acts.

“We’re all asking `what if,’ and weall want to know why,” says Fawn Price, a sophomore from Lebanon, Va.”But I don’t think we’re going to get the answers we need as soon as weneed them.”


There were signs, so many signs.

Orso it appears in hindsight. But the people in the position to dosomething and the systems we create to protect ourselves seemedill-equipped to deal with Cho.

There was an opportunity when twofemale students called university police, soon after Roy began meetingwith Cho. They were being hounded, they complained _ there wererepeated phone calls, instant messages, notes. They did not know Choand did not want to know him.

Then, in December 2005, Koch called police to say that his suitemate seemed suicidal.

Officerswent to speak with Cho. He was referred to the local mental healthcenter, and then sent to a psychiatric care hospital.

Here was Cho, safely away from campus, in the arms of the mental health system. What if it had been possible to keep him there?

It didn’t happen. A day or two later, he was released and returned to campus.

Virginia Tech officials say his care was out of their hands, and they could not know that he needed more help.

Andwhat could they have done? When George Washington University and NewYork’s Hunter College expelled students who appeared suicidal, thestudents sued.

Schools have to “balance the rights of studentswith the rights of the communities and with what parents want, and itsnot an easy thing to do,” says Dr. Joanna Locke of the Jed Foundation,which works to prevent suicide and promote mental health among collegestudents.

What about the mental health providers beyond campus who dealt directly with Cho? Couldn’t they have done something?

Notunless Cho shared his morbid fantasies, and people like Cho almostnever do, says Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychologist who hasprofiled mass murderers.

Cho “is not a person who fell through the cracks. He’s a person who crawled into the cracks,” Welner says.

If mental health providers couldn’t follow him there, what if university police had pursued a case against him?

Butthat would have required the two female students to press stalkingcharges against Cho. And after speaking with Virginia Tech officers,the two women decided against it, police say.

Other femalestudents said last week that they would almost certainly have made thesame decision. Unusual behavior is not unusual on campus. No one wantsto make trouble for others.

“Stalking happens on almost everycampus across the country. It is a problem and people rarely know howto deal with it,” says Michele Galietta, a clinical psychologist who isresearching the treatment of stalkers.

“I think that’s whysometimes officials are hesitant to take a heavy hand with it,” shesays. “Keep in mind that this guy (Cho) didn’t threaten anyone. He didbizarre things.”

But that hasn’t stopped Galietta from mulling a whole series of what-ifs.

Ifthe women had pursued a case, and if Cho had been convicted of stalking_ rather than a misdemeanor charge of harassment _ he would haveentered the domain of the criminal justice system. If so, he might haveserved time and on release would have been assigned to a probationofficer who could’ve have monitored his behavior. When he went to buy agun, a criminal record would have prevented it, she says.

And that raises the emotionally charged question of Cho’s access to guns.

What if firearms laws had been tougher?

Theproblem with that question is that, as easy as it is to buy a gun in astate like Virginia, a case can be made that Cho still shouldn’t havemade it through the net.

After Cho was evaluated at a psychiatrichospital in late 2005, a judge found that the student “presents animminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.” That shouldhave disqualified him from purchasing a gun under federal law, expertssay.

But Virginia court officials insist that because the judgeordered only outpatient treatment _ and did not commit Cho to apsychiatric hospital _ they were not required to submit the informationto be entered in the federal databases for background checks.

Thethread that runs through nearly all the what-ifs at Virginia Tech isthe most obvious and perhaps the most difficult to parse. What if theuniversity police and administration had taken more decisive action, atany number of junctures?

That opens up a debate about whether Virginia Tech did enough to protect itself against threats from within.

Thereare many who are willing to accept school officials’ word that theytook all possible security measures to prevent what happened here.College police departments are just as well-trained and sophisticatedas any city department and they take just as aggressive a stance inpreventing violence, says Ray Thrower, head of security at Minnesota’sGustavus Adolphus College and president-elect of the InternationalAssociation of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Ifanything, Virginia Tech _ one of the first campus police departments inthe country to win professional accreditation _ exemplifies thatargument.

But could that argument be missing the point?

Theproblem with Virginia Tech’s policing _ and with most other college’sapproach to security _ runs deeper than training or resources ordedication, says S. Daniel Carter of Security on Campus Inc., anonprofit watchdog group. The problem is mindset, he says.

On a campus, everyone is a big family _ the administrators, the students, the faculty and the university’s security officers.

Asa result, “the tendency is to overlook or downplay potential problems,”Carter says. “They don’t want to think that their campus communitymembers _ their students _ could be that dangerous.”

Carterbelieves that mind-set was almost certainly a factor in how VirginiaTech officers handled _ or mishandled _ previous complaints about Cho.And it was clearly a factor in many of the things that went wrong earlyon a flurry-filled morning last Monday when a campus just stirring fromits weekend slumber was shaken by gunfire, he says.

The dorm Chochose for as his first target requires a magnetic card for entry. Butstudents say they let each other into one another’s dorms all the time.What if the security system had been more comprehensive?

Whenofficers responded to a 911 call at West Ambler Johnston Hall and foundthe bodies of resident assistant Ryan Clark and freshman Emily Hilscheron the fourth floor, they began investigating the killings as a crimeof domestic violence. The problem, Carter says, is that they even asthey pursued that lead, investigators assumed as fact a theory thathadn’t yet been proven.

What if they’d considered the possibilityof shooter with a different profile, one who had no intention ofstopping with two victims?

Administrators and police did notdecide to lock down the campus and notify students of the violencetaking place around them until the shootings that left 31 more studentsdead in Norris Hall. What if they’d acted sooner?

It is the lastin a heart-rending series of what-ifs. Together, they weigh on the mindbut not because it is essential to lay blame, or to find a culprit.

Theymatter because we need to understand. Because to know what, if anythingcould have been done differently, is the only means we have forsqueezing a drop of reason, comfort or understanding from uttersenselessness.

What if we had it all to do all over again? WouldReema Samaha have lived to dance once more? Would Michael Pohle stillbe here to don cap and gown this spring and clutch his diploma?

Whatif? Can there be anyone who hasn’t asked themselves that question inrecent days and not felt the ache of knowing it can never be adequatelyanswered?

That is a feeling that Chris Flynn, director ofVirginia Tech’s mental health counseling center, is beginning tounderstand all too well.

What if? The question plays again and again through his head.

That, he says, is a question he’ll ask “for the rest of my life.”


Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Blacksburg and Matthew Barakat in McLean, Va., contributed to this report.

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