The Virginia Tech massacre: One year later

Laws have been changed and communication improved, but total safety may be impossible


Apr. 13--BLACKSBURG Sung-Tae and Hyang Im Cho had their luggage packed and waiting at the door of their Fairfax County home when police arrived. The couple had heard news of a mass shooting at Virginia Tech and were preparing to travel to Blacksburg to check on their son, Seung-Hui Cho.

Their travel plans ended abruptly, though, when police told them the mass murderer was in fact their son, and he had killed himself, according to former Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Gerald Massengill.

Only then, with 32 murdered and their son dead, did the Chos begin to learn how his life had unraveled on the Blacksburg campus over almost two years.

"They did not know their son had been committed for a psychiatric hearing," said Massengill, who led the state panel that investigated the massacre. "No one had ever told them."

What some people didn't tell and what others didn't know lies at the heart of what went wrong at Virginia Tech on April 16, when the worst mass killing on a college campus in U.S. history unfolded on a blustery day.

And for the past year, those scrambled communications -- among Tech professors and administrators, between state and federal officials, between campus counselors and community health organizations -- have been a major focus of an effort by Tech and the state to make fixes and to create a university environment that would better prevent a mentally disturbed student like Cho from killing again.

Since the massacre, state mental-health laws have been changed, state gun laws have been clarified, psychiatric-care providers in the Blacksburg area have become more diligent about monitoring the mentally ill, more counselors staff the school's health center, and Tech has created a team of officials to track students deemed potential threats.

Tech has spent $10 million on safety improvements so far. The school has expanded a text-messaging and e-mail alert system that now has more than 20,000 subscribers among students, faculty and administrators. It has hired nine more police officers, replaced all push bars on campus building exits and put locks on classroom doors.

And yet, Tech President Charles W. Steger conceded recently, "the bottom line is, and you hate to come to this conclusion, but if you have a student who is willing to take their own life, I don't know what defense you can have."

Officials have tried to reduce the odds that a gunman bent on killing could succeed, and Tech has become a resource, as well as a source of hard lessons learned, for other colleges and universities. Northern Illinois State University, where a gunman killed five students and himself on Valentine's Day, had bolstered its emergency-response planning in the aftermath of the Tech killings, as have colleges and universities across the country.

Retired Lt. Gen. Bruce M. Lawlor, director of Tech's new Center for Technology, Security, and Policy in Northern Virginia, said law enforcement and universities have to find ways to identify potential mass killers through their behavior and what they tell others of their plans.

"Two things have to be focused on: One is communication and the second is behavior," he said shortly after the Illinois shootings. "Universities have got to start looking at those two issues very carefully."

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