What Went Wrong?
The insanity and mayhem unleashed at Virginia Tech was a random and rare event. But unlike some unfathomable crimes, this one has a long enough trail of miscalculation and oversight to raise serious questions about safety on campus. The shooter's troubling behavior, his gun purchases, and the campus response on the day of the shooting all hold broader lessons for other colleges, where security issues are notoriously swept out of sight and statistics are hard to come by
A troubled loner who rarely spoke, hiding behind dark glasses. An English major whose creative writing was filled with violence and obscenity so disturbing that professors repeatedly urged him to get counseling. A kid who was bullied in high school for being painfully shy. An awkward young man whose text messages to female students annoyed them to the point that they reported him as a stalker. A college student who kept his grades up, but who appeared so depressed that an acquaintance told authorities he seemed suicidal.
Those are the stark clues that came forth about Seung Hui Cho's mental condition in the past two years. Plenty of people noticed he was struggling. In fact, quite a few tried to get him help. Cho was even briefly hospitalized as a suicide risk in 2005, then released when he told a judge he wasn't going to kill himself. The final, awful revelation came last week, when Cho fatally shot 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech before turning a gun on himself.
Now, university administrators and campus mental health counselors across the country are re-examining their decades-long struggle to identify and treat mentally ill students. Many are also pondering whether they would have intervened in time if Cho had been one of their students. This painful second-guessing, though more anguished than ever, isn't new. But in recent years, the task has become more challenging, as an increasing number of students arrive on campus with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. At the same time, university officials are told that mental health and privacy laws prohibit them from contacting parents unless the child is clearly a threat to himself or others. Universities have been sued for kicking out students who said they were suicidal-and also sued for not preventing suicides.
"The legal system and the medical system conspire to leave these kids more alone than they should be," says Edward Shapiro, a psychiatrist in Stockbridge, Mass., who often advises college counselors and administrators on these dilemmas. "If the kid isn't failing courses, if they're not hassling people, and they're doing their work, there's not much the colleges can do."
Chris Flynn, who directs Tech's counseling center, has declined to discuss Cho's case. But counselors around the country say they often see students with symptoms as serious as Cho's and struggle to identify which ones are at risk of harming themselves or others, and with how to get them to seek help.
Lucinda Roy, former chairman of Tech's English department, says she told campus police and administrators of her worries about Cho's antisocial behavior and disturbingly violent writing. She says Cho repeatedly rebuffed her suggestions that he get counseling. In December 2005, Cho was detained by campus police after a second female student complained that he had been stalking her via text message and an acquaintance reported to campus officials that Cho seemed suicidal. He was judged "an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness" and was taken to Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Health, a private mental hospital near Radford, Va. A court-ordered medical examination found that Cho "denies suicidal ideations. He does not acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder. His insight and judgment are normal." A magistrate ruled that Cho was free to go but told him to get outpatient counseling.