Virginia Tech failed to properly care for a mentally troubled student gunman and waited too long to warn faculty and students after he killed his first two victims in a shooting spree that eventually claimed 31 more lives, including his own, a panel’s report concluded.
Had university officials not waited more than two hours to tell the campus about the initial shootings, lives could have been saved when Seung-Hui Cho later began his massacre inside a classroom building, according to the report, released Aug. 29.
“Warning the students, faculty, and staff might have made a difference,” the panel wrote. “… The earlier and clearer the warning, the more chance an individual had of surviving.”
But the report concluded that while swifter warnings might have helped students and faculty, a lockdown of the 131 buildings on campus would not have been feasible. And while the first message sent by the university could have gone out at least an hour earlier and been more specific, Cho likely still would have found more people to kill, the report found.
“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 eight-member panel, appointed by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, spent four months investigating the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Panel chairman Gerald Massengill declined to comment Aug. 29, but he was scheduled to speak at a news conference with the governor on Aug. 30.
Kaine said he did not conclude from the report that either Virginia Tech President Charles Steger or campus police Chief Wendell Flinchum should resign.
The report detailed a breakdown in communication about the gunman, who had shown signs of mental health problems for years. His middle school teachers found signs of 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. In 2006, he wrote a paper for his Virginia Tech creative writing class about a young man who hates students at his school and plans to kill them and himself, the report said.
The university’s counseling center failed to give Cho the support he needed despite the warnings, including his referral to the center in 2005 because of bizarre behavior and concerns he was suicidal, the panel said. It blamed a lack of resources, misinterpretation of privacy laws, and passivity.
Individuals and departments at Virginia Tech were aware of incidents that suggested his mental instability, but they “did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information, and no one connected all the dots,” the report said.
The report said the response by university and Blacksburg police to the dormitory shootings was well coordinated, and it said the police response at Norris Hall was “prompt and effective,” as was triage and evacuation of the wounded.
But it also noted that university police might have erred in prematurely concluding that the first two shootings were the result of a domestic dispute.
Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie was killed, said the report’s findings were what she expected, including “a number of critical errors in judgment.”
“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 eMail message to The Associated Press.
Diane Strollo, whose daughter Hilary was shot and survived, said she was thankful the panel recognized that an earlier warning could have derailed Cho’s plans for Norris Hall.
“Had some or all of the student body been notified that two students were gunned down that morning, they may have had heightened sensitivity to the sound of gunshots and other suspicious activity,” Strollo wrote in an eMail to AP. “One or two minutes of notice may have been critical in saving more lives in Norris Hall.”
Derek O’Dell, who was shot in the arm, said he probably wouldn’t have gone to class that morning if he had received word that a shooting had occurred in a dormitory and the killer hadn’t been caught.
“I don’t think anybody would have,” he said.
In July, Virginia Tech debuted a subscription-based system that will send emergency alerts to the telephone numbers, eMail addresses, and instant-messaging addresses of students and staff who register. Participants can choose how they want to be notified. Nearly 5,000 students and staff reportedly signed up for the new system within the first week of its launch.
The technology is being provided by 3n, a California-based supplier of mass notification systems. The university was in the process of choosing a vendor for just such a system when the April 16 shootings occurred.