A state panel has sharply criticized decisions made by Virginia Tech before and after last April’s shooting massacre, saying university officials could have saved lives by notifying students and faculty members earlier that there had been killings on campus.
Because university officials misunderstood federal privacy laws as forbidding any exchange of a student’s mental health information, the panel’s long-awaited report concludes, they missed numerous indications of the gunman’s mental health problems.
After a judge ordered the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, to receive outpatient mental health care for making suicidal statements, Cho scheduled an appointment at the campus counseling center but was given only a pre-appointment interview, the report said, and no follow-up appointment occurred. Records of the interview are missing, and Cho’s parents were never informed by campus or local officials of his statements or brief commitment to a mental health facility, the report said.
The panel, convened by Gov. Tim Kaine to investigate the April 16 shooting in Blacksburg that left 33 people dead, including Cho, planned to release its report on Thursday but did so late Wednesday, several hours after The New York Times obtained a copy.
Though the report’s criticism was strong, it concluded that a campuswide lockdown after the first shootings, a double homicide, would have been impractical and probably ineffective in stopping Cho, 23.
“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.”
But if the university had issued an alert earlier or canceled classes after Cho shot his first two victims, before moving on to shoot the rest in a classroom building, the death toll might have been lower, panel members wrote. The report found that even after university officials learned the full scope of the massacre, their messages to students played down the unfolding emergency as a “routine police procedure.”
“The events were highly disturbing and there was no way to sugarcoat them” in disseminating the news, the report said. “Straight facts were needed.”
Campus and local police responses were “well-coordinated,” the report said, but university police officers erred in prematurely concluding that their initial lead in the double homicide was a good one. The police initially thought the shooting was an isolated domestic dispute, and erroneously pursued a suspect who they believed had left the campus.
“They did not take sufficient action with what might happen if the initial lead proved erroneous,” said the report, which was written by an eight-member panel that was led by W. Gerald Massengill, a former state police superintendent, and included former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, as well as other mental health, security and education specialists.
In a raucous conference call with the governor’s office on Wednesday night, family members of victims voiced frustration that the university had not imposed a lockdown after the first shootings and criticized the report for not demanding that some officials be fired.
“Can you explain how 32 people were killed and no one has been fired, no one has been held accountable at that university?” one family member on the conference call asked.
“I can’t answer that question,” responded Larry Roberts, the chief counsel in the governor’s office, adding that panel members did not consider it their job to make personnel recommendations.
The report, consisting of 147 pages and 14 appendices, said that while the campus police knew of Cho’s repeated instances of inappropriate behavior and his stay at a mental health facility, that information never reached campus workers who deal with troubled students. Contrary to what university officials believed, the report said, federal privacy laws would have allowed them to communicate some information about Cho’s mental health problems among local, state and campus security officials.
“Information privacy laws cannot help students if the law allows sharing, but agency policy or practice forbids necessary sharing,” it concludes. The report also said “passivity” and lack of resources had hampered local and campus mental health workers.
A spokesman for Virginia Tech said officials there had not received a copy of the report and could not comment on it.
The panel said that it found no clear explanation for why the gunman had selected his first two victims in a dormitory before moving on to a classroom building. While the report did not shed new light on Cho’s motives, it traced his violent fantasies to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. After that massacre, Cho’s middle school teachers in Fairfax County, Va., observed suicidal and homicidal thoughts in his writings and recommended psychiatric counseling, which he received. He also received medication in those years for a short time, the report said.
The panel’s findings come a week after the university released its own report recommending ways to improve the security and mental health systems. Campus officials said they were leaving it to the governor’s panel to critique the university’s handling of Cho as a student and the decisions made by security officials during the emergency.
The release of the report, which was originally planned to occur last Monday on the first day of the fall semester at Virginia Tech, has been repeatedly delayed, and in recent weeks some victims’ families have voiced frustrations at being denied a representative on the panel. Some relatives have expressed concern at the potential for bias in having former law enforcement officials in charge of investigating decisions made by law enforcement officials.
The panel initially struggled to obtain records of Cho’s encounters with the mental health system, but Kaine issued an executive order in June that gave the group greater access to health and academic records that are protected by privacy laws.
The report largely sidesteps the Second Amendment debate about access to guns in the state and the nation. It cites “deep divisions in American society regarding the ready availability of rapid-fire weapons and high-capacity magazines,” stating that this debate was beyond its scope.
The report commends Kaine for having closed the loophole that allowed people like Cho, who had been mandated to receive outpatient mental health treatment, to buy guns. But it says a change is still needed in the state legal code to address the problem, and it calls for state legislation to establish “the right of every institution of higher education in the commonwealth to regulate the possession of firearms on campus if it so desires.”
The report said that Cho’s purchase of two guns violated federal law because he had been judged to be a danger to himself and ordered to undergo outpatient mental health treatment.
“There is confusion on the part of universities as to what their rights are for setting policy regarding guns on campus,” it said, recommending that Virginia require background checks for all firearms sales, including those at gun shows.