The Virginia Tech massacre: One year later

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


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.