A chilling thought: college shooter could have been treated
By Chris Cermak Aug 31, 2007, 0:09 GMT
Washington - Cho Seung Hui, a 23-year-old student who killed 32 students at Virginia Tech this spring in the deadliest shooting by a lone gunman in US history, had a long past of mental illness.
Treating and monitoring Cho during his nearly four years on campus might have prevented the horrific massacre - a stark and chilling thought that raises serious questions about how mentally troubled teenagers and students should be cared for.
Yet that is the implicit conclusion of a state panel charged with investigating the deadly shootings in April on the campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, as it is officially known.
In what Virginia Governor Tim Kaine described as a 'hard-hitting' but 'fair' report released Thursday, the 10-member panel heavily criticized the university and state institutions for failing to address Cho's apparently long-standing mental health issues and red flags raised throughout his life and time on campus.
Cho, an English student and immigrant from South Korea, had been receiving psychiatric treatment during middle and high school in the US for an extreme shyness disorder, severe depression and a series of 'suicidal and homicidal' writings - some of which were apparently inspired by the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
His parents 'were well-aware that he was troubled' from an early age, and his school identified him as having 'special education needs.' It was even recommended that he not attend Virginia Tech with its 26,000 students because it was too large and far away from home, the panel writes in its report.
But none of these warning signs were passed on to Virginia Tech authorities or university counsellors. Cho was now an adult, and his special needs in school were not part of his college application.
'These positive influences ended when Cho graduated from high school,' the panel wrote. 'His multifaceted support system then disappeared, leaving a huge void.'
The panel struggled with how to address concerns about passing on such personal information - to what extent should a state and a university have the right to be informed about the mental health issues of an adult, albeit a young one?
Yet that does not hide a disturbing reality: the panel found that Cho was responding well to treatment - did well academically in high school - but lost that support when he entered university.
'There was an intense awareness ... that (Cho) was a very troubled young man,' Virginia Governor Kaine said. 'Unfortunately, none of that information ever got to Virginia Tech and I think that was a huge missed opportunity.'
Without treatment, Cho's behaviour steadily degenerated during his time at university, and the flurry of concerns reported by students and faculty at Virginia Tech have been well-documented - everything from the harassment of two female students, to suicidal tendencies, to violent class writings.
Cho was interviewed three times by campus police in a period of less than a month - over the harassment and suicide claims - from November to December 2005. That December he spent a night in a mental hospital and was ordered by a court the following day to undergo out- patient mental health treatment.
Yet the university's so-called Care Team - charged with identifying and monitoring troubled students - was unaware of Cho's contacts with police, or even of the court order.
The state viewed Virginia Tech's counselling centre as the point- place for treatment, yet never followed up. Cho appeared at the centre for one appointment, and never made another one. The counselling centre also never followed up.
Meanwhile, Cho's anti-social behaviour and violent writings in class continued. One of the writings from spring 2006 cited in the panel's report describes a fictional character, Bud, who wrestles with the idea of shooting students in a random classroom.
'No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots,' the panel wrote in its findings. The university's counselling centre 'failed for lack of resources, incorrect interpretation of privacy laws, and passivity.'
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger acknowledged that failures to pass on information had allowed Cho to slip through the cracks, but also said that a warning of Cho's mental health history before he came to college would have been 'invaluable.'
'We need some way of understanding a student's life before college,' Steger said. 'If we had known that context, the response probably would have been quite different.'
Another finding of the panel: 'Cho's family did not realize what was happening with him.'
Cho's parents were unaware of the student complaints, writings, police interviews, court appearances or time in a mental health facility. Cho never told his parents, and the university believed privacy laws prevented them from doing so.
'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,' the panel quotes Cho's parents as saying.© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur