August 30, 2007

Report: Va. Tech officials could have saved lives by notifying students, faculty sooner

Print More

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Virginia Tech officials might have saved lives if they had notified faculty and students sooner about the first two shootings on campus, a panel concluded in its investigation of the April rampage that left 33 dead.
“Warning the students, faculty and staff might have made a difference. … So the earlier and clearer the warning, the more chance an individual had of surviving,” said the report, which was released late last night.
However, the report concluded that while swifter warnings might have helped students and faculty protect themselves or alert authorities of suspicious activity, a lockdown on April 16 of the 131 buildings on campus was not feasible.
It may not have prevented the determined gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, from carrying out the shootings, the report said. As a student, he had access to campus buildings and the ability to get the same messages as everyone else. He could have gained access to a dormitory or begun shooting people in the open.
“From what we know of his mental state and commitment to action that day, it was likely that he would have acted out his fantasy somewhere on campus or outside it that same day,” the report said.
The eight-member panel, appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, spent four months investigating the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Panel chairman Gerald Massengill declined to comment when reached Wednesday night.
Kaine said yesterday he did not conclude from the report that either Virginia Tech President Charles Steger or campus police Chief Wendell Flinchum should resign.
“The points that I will raise tomorrow, I don’t view that they would be solved by taking that step,” Kaine said.
The report also concluded that while Cho had demonstrated numerous signs of mental instability, the university did not intervene effectively.
The panel sharply criticized the university’s counseling center, where Cho was referred for treatment in 2005 after a stretch of bizarre behavior and concerns that he was suicidal. The panel concluded that the center failed to provide needed support and services to Cho, due to a lack of resources, misinterpretation of privacy laws and passivity.
The report also noted that records of Cho’s “minimal treatment” at the counseling center are missing.
Cho showed signs of mental health problems as far back as middle school, the panel found. His middle school teachers found suicidal and homicidal thoughts in his writings after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. He received psychiatric counseling and was on medication for a short time, the report said.
Individuals and departments at Tech were aware of incidents that warned of his mental instability in his junior year, but “did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots,” the report said.
Cho killed the first two students just after 7 a.m., more than two hours before his deadly rampage in classroom building across campus. It wasn’t until 9:26 a.m. that the school sent the first e-mail to students and faculty.
The subject line read, “Shooting on campus.” The message read: “The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case.”
No further action was ordered. Cho began shooting inside Norris Hall about 20 minutes later. He later killed himself.
The protocol for sending an emergency message on April 16 was “cumbersome, untimely, and problematic when a decision was needed as soon as possible,” the report said.
The first message sent by the university to students could have been sent at least an hour earlier and been more specific, but Cho likely would have found someone to kill that day, the report concluded.
“There does not seem to be a plausible scenario of a university response to the double homicide that could have prevented the tragedy of considerable magnitude on April 16,” the report said. “Cho had started on a mission of fulfilling a fantasy of revenge.”
The report said the university’s emergency response plan was deficient in several respects: it did not include provisions for a shooting scenario and did not place police high enough in the emergency decision-making hierarchy. It also did not include a threat assessment team.
A university spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Before the report was released to the public, injured students and deceased students’ families received private briefings on the report’s contents.
Some of the families of those killed and injured have demanded frank answers about how Cho was able to commit the shooting despite behavior that had alarmed fellow students, faculty and police.
Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie was killed, said the report’s findings were what she expected, including “a number of critical errors in judgment” during Cho’s educational experience.
“At Virginia Tech, he exhibited seriously deviant behavior that went unchecked, and the faculty did not take adequate steps to put him in check,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “There were many, many, behavioral acts that should have been reported but were not reported.”
Sherman said the panel found what the families have long known – that the delay in notifying students of the first shootings was too long.
“While the report may praise the actions of EMS and campus/Blacksburg police, those ‘well done’ acts are hardly a balance for the errors,” she said. “I think we need to remember that if it weren’t for mistakes, the EMS and police would not have had to act, and you can’t compare the two types of acts to achieve a balance.”