The Virginia Tech massacre: One year later

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


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.