The Virginia Tech massacre: One year later

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."

A review of Cho's behavior and the communications among those who tried to deal with it, meticulously detailed in the Massengill Report, explains why some measures have been taken since April 16, while suggesting that some avenues to violence may never be closed.

Though he was an inordinately shy child, it was not until 1999, when he was in eighth grade, that Cho's mental problems began to surface. Cho had immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea with his parents in 1992 and moved to Fairfax the following year, when he was 9.

His middle school teachers in Fairfax noticed suicidal and homicidal thoughts in his school papers, and he was briefly prescribed antidepressant medication. In high school he underwent therapy for a social-anxiety disorder known as selective mutism. He had made a slight improvement when he insisted on ending the treatments in 11th grade.

When he arrived at Tech in 2003, he told no one of his past mental troubles. The Fairfax school system, restrained by federal privacy laws, sent Tech no paperwork on Cho's treatment. Those privacy laws have remained unchanged since April 16.

At first, Cho's parents visited him every weekend, but he seemed to settle in, was excited about college and received good grades.

In the fall of 2005, Cho's troubles became noticeable. Visiting a woman's dorm room with his suitemates, he took out a knife and began stabbing at the carpet. They stopped taking him out after that. Professor Nikki Giovanni, his poetry teacher, grew concerned about the violence in his writings. She warned the young English major to stop taking pictures of his classmates with a camera he held beneath his desk.

English department Chairwoman Lucinda Roy removed Cho from Giovanni's class and began tutoring him. Cho refused to get counseling, so Roy notified Tech's division of student affairs, Tech's Cook Counseling Center and campus police, among others. Tech's Care Team, composed of the dean of student affairs, director of resident life and legal counsel, among others, discussed Cho's problems. With situation apparenttly settled, the team took no action.

Today, Tech has a Threat Assessment Team, led by the campus police chief, Wendell Flinchum. The team meets weekly to discuss students brought to its attention by professors or others. And because Flinchum has the power to bar students from campus, the team has leverage to compel students to seek help.

As Cho dodged help in the fall of 2005, his behavior grew more annoying to those around him. Three female students complained of unwanted and bothersome contact from Cho, and two of them notified campus police.

After a warning visit from campus police, Cho called the Cook Counseling Center, but on Dec. 12 he failed to keep an appointment. The next day, after a suitemate heard Cho express what he took to be a suicidal impulse, police had someone with the New River Valley Community Services Board evaluate him. The screener deemed Cho an imminent danger to himself and others, so Cho was involuntarily committed to the Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital for an overnight stay.

The next day, a special justice ordered Cho to undergo outpatient treatment, and Cho made an appointment for 3 p.m. that afternoon at the Cook Counseling Center.

It would be Cho's only visit. He never returned. Records of the visit are missing. It was the Community Service Board's responsibility to draw up an outpatient-treatment plan for Cho, but because a board representative had not attended the hearing before the special justice, the board was unaware of Cho's situation. Since then, the board has begun sending a representative to commitment hearings.

Campus police, meanwhile, were never told that Cho was ordered into outpatient treatment. The Cook Counseling Center, not knowing of the special justice's order, eventually forgot about Cho. Since April 16, the counseling center has added the equivalent of five full-time positions, said director Chris Flynn, giving it a total of 19 counselors, psychiatrists and nurses in addition to three interns and three graduate students.

"I hope Cho was a once-in-a-lifetime" student, Flynn said, "but we've worked hard to be more capable of dealing with students with significant emotional disturbances."

And because the campus police chief now sits on the Threat Assessment Team, campus police and counselors share more information.

In February 2007, two months before his deadly attack, Cho bought a .22-caliber Walther P22 handgun. In March he bought a 9 mm Glock 19. Cho was able to buy the guns because the federal database used for background checks did not include the information from Virginia that Cho had been committed to involuntary outpatient treatment. The circumstance would have barred Cho from buying guns under federal law, but because state law was unclear, the information was never passed on. Since then, Virginia has spelled out that such information must be sent to the federal database.

The bills that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine signed into law last week also make it easier to involuntarily commit mentally ill people for treatment, bolster oversight of the commitment and treatment processes and improve coordination among the various agencies involved in mental-health treatment.

On April 16, Cho killed 32 people. His first two targets were students Emily Hilscher and Ryan C. Clark, shot to death in the West Ambler Johnston dormitory around 7:15 a.m.

More than two hours passed before Tech officials sent out an e-mail alert, at 9:26 a.m., notifying students of a shooting at the dorm. The e-mail urged students to be cautious but didn't note that the killer was at large and might still be on campus.

At 9:40 a.m., Cho killed five teachers and 25 students at Norris Hall, having first chained the exit doors on the first floor.

Tech officials explained the delay between the first shootings and the e-mail alert by noting that campus police had a suspect, Hilscher's boyfriend, and they thought he was off campus.

Massengill, though, said police erred by drawing conclusions too quickly, and Tech erred in waiting so long to send out an alert. Furthermore, the alert failed to give students specific information.

"You need to get a message out quickly and make it as clear as you can make it," Massengill said. "Don't try to spin it." Another problem, according to Massengill: The police department did not have the technological capability to send out a campuswide alert. Today, it does.

Tech has since expanded its text-message and alert system and is also considering putting up surveillance cameras in some high-traffic areas, as well as electronic message displays in classrooms.

Some students have grumbled about the possibility of surveillance cameras on campus, but many support the concept.

"It makes me feel safer," said student Laura Klene, 19, of Herndon.

As for the lack of notification of Cho's troubles to his parents, the bills Kaine signed into law last week require that parents be notified if a dependent student receives treatment at a school counseling center. In Massengill's report, Cho's parents suggested such notification could have made all the difference in their son's life, and in the lives of his victims.

Had they been notified, the parents told investigators, "we would have taken him home and made him miss a semester to get this looked at . . . but we just did not know . . . about anything being wrong."

Copyright (c) 2008, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.