School defends actions on Cho before shootings

Virginia Tech Shootings

April 20, 2007|By New York Times News Service

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Officials at Virginia Tech defended yesterday their decision to allow the gunman in Monday's rampage to return to campus after he was released from a psychiatric facility, even though they were aware of his troubled mental history and potential for violence.

Cho Seung-Hui, 23, the student who killed himself and 32 others, received outpatient psychiatric care ordered for him after he was involuntarily hospitalized and reportedly suicidal in late 2005.

Christopher Flynn, director of the campus counseling service, said the university had played no role in monitoring Cho's psychiatric treatment.

"The university is not part of the mental health system nor the judiciary system, and we would not be the providers of mandatory counseling in this instance," Flynn said at a news conference. "This is not a law enforcement issue. He had broken no law that we know of. The mental health professionals were there to assess his safety, not particularly the safety of others."

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said yesterday that a state commission would review the circumstances leading up to the shootings - including the extent of Cho's interaction with the mental health system - and the way the university handled events that day.

"While we're not going out there to second-guess people," said the commission's chairman, Gerald Massengill, a former superintendent of the state police. "We are going out there to find some lessons to learn."

At yesterday's news conference, State Police Superintendent Steve Flaherty said he was "disappointed" with NBC's decision to air excerpts of digital recordings and still images that Cho mailed Monday morning to the network's New York offices. The network, which received the materials Wednesday, turned them over to authorities but ran excerpts that night on the NBC Nightly News.

As a result of the broadcast, Flaherty said, victims' families and the public had "endured a view of life few of us should have to endure." The network faced a barrage of criticism for showing the footage.

Flaherty said that the material that Cho sent to NBC contained no "vital evidence" and was of "marginal value" to investigators.

Also yesterday, Virginia Tech Provost Mark G. McNamee announced that the students who died in Monday's rampage would receive posthumous degrees at graduation ceremonies on May 11.

Classes are scheduled to resume Monday, but McNamee said that students would be able to decide how they chose to complete the semester.

During the briefing, Virginia Tech's chief of police, Wendell Flinchum, said his department notified university officials in late 2005 that Cho had gone to the mental health center, after two female students reported he was bothering them.

Tom Brown of the university's Dean of Students Office said that a university "care team" - including health officials, counselors and sometimes police - meets each week to discuss students.

Officials said they did not know whether Cho had been discussed in any of those meetings.

University officials also said they did not receive any reports after late 2005 that Cho was dangerous, although one professor said she had expressed concerns about Cho last fall.

They fielded questions about Cho's care after it surfaced that campus authorities became aware 17 months ago of the student's troubled mental state.

Cho's imbalance was graphically on display in the video he mailed to NBC News.

"You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience," he says at one point. "Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people."

The hostility in the videos was foreshadowed in 2005, when Cho's sullen and aggressive behavior culminated in an unsuccessful effort by the campus police to have him involuntarily committed to a mental institution in December that year.

For all the interventions by the police and faculty members, Cho was allowed to remain on campus and live with other students. There is no evidence that the police monitored him, nor is there any indication that the authorities or fellow students were aware of any incident that pushed him to his rampage.

Despite Cho's time in the mental health system, when an English professor was disturbed by his writings last fall and contacted the associate dean of students, the dean told the professor that there was no record of any problems and that nothing could be done, said the instructor, Lisa Norris.

The quest to have him committed, documented in court papers, was made after the first female student complained of unwelcome telephone calls and in-person communication from Cho on Nov. 27, 2005. The woman declined to press charges, and the campus police referred the case to the disciplinary system of the university, Flinchum said.

Cho's disciplinary record was not released because of privacy laws. The associate vice president for student affairs, Edward F.D. Spencer, said it would not be unusual if no disciplinary action had been taken in such a case. He said yesterday that for a student to be disciplined, someone must press charges.

On Dec. 12, a second woman asked the police to put a stop to Cho's instant messages to her. She, too, declined to press charges.

Sun reporter Melissa Harris, in Blacksburg, contributed to this article.

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