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Va. Tech Shootings: If Common Sense Had Ruled

Okay, I've read the 260 pages filed by the review panel that investigated the Virginia Tech shootings, and I understand that the university should have stepped in to help Seung Hui Cho but didn't, that Cho's parents should have alerted the college to his condition but didn't and that the state mental health system should have acted more decisively but didn't.

Here's what I don't get. In the hundreds of interviews the panel conducted, why didn't they ask all those people whose job it is to care for students one question: How would you have handled Cho if you had let your conscience, not privacy laws, guide you?

Maybe they didn't ask because we all know the answer, and it is a most discomfiting one. If the mental health professionals, police and college administrators who saw or knew about Cho's disturbing actions had acted as if their own child were involved, there might not have been any need for an investigation.

Boil down the report, cast aside the pointless second-guessing of police tactics, and you're left with this: Virginia Tech failed to intervene to help Cho because we as a society have trapped ourselves inside rules that stigmatize mental illness and paralyze our natural instinct to reach out and help someone in need.

This is no theoretical exercise in hindsight. This is a direct comparison between what some people did and what others didn't. At Virginia Tech, students who were frightened by their encounters with Cho took action. They told adults in positions of authority. The responsible adults then met and, in the words of the report, "did nothing." Why? "Lack of resources, incorrect interpretation of privacy laws and passivity," the panel concludes in its report.

Now compare what the Fairfax school system did and what Virginia Tech failed to do. In 1999, when Cho was in eighth grade, his teachers noticed, as Tech professors would later, that the youngster was thinking seriously about suicide and homicide. The boy wrote, the report says, that he "wanted to repeat Columbine."

Fairfax acted. The middle school asked Cho's parents to get him counseling. A psychiatric evaluation led to a diagnosis and treatment, which enabled Cho to perform well in school.

Again in high school, Fairfax stepped in and developed a plan for dealing with Cho's silences and other unusual behaviors. With therapy, he improved.

From there on, a lack of openness hid Cho's illness and prevented the care that might have averted disaster. No information about Cho's condition moved with him from Fairfax to Virginia Tech. The university, unlike many colleges that look at essays, recommendations and other subjective material, doesn't require much beyond test scores and grades to assess applicants. The admissions staff, the report says, "did not see the special accommodations that propped up Cho and his grades."

The culprit here is the culture of privacy that we have allowed to pervade certain areas of life, especially health and education. We have done this even as we have relied on openness to lead us into enormous change in other social realms. Does anyone doubt that it was transparency that led to deep and lasting shifts in American attitudes toward disability, race, religion and sexuality? We grew to accept people unlike ourselves because of greatly increased familiarity with and exposure to others. We came to see that we had something in common.

But in the name of protecting the mentally ill, the law stigmatizes their condition. By walling off mental illness, we prevent the power of light from reaching those who are suffering.

Privacy laws leave everyone from health workers to college administrators confused and defensive about what they may do and say. They react by doing less than they would if left to their own empathy and common sense.

"The current state of information privacy law and practice is inadequate," the report concludes. "The privacy laws need amendment and clarification."

Colleges require students to submit immunization records, yet records of emotional problems are sealed. The intent is to protect the mentally ill from discrimination in the admissions process. But that doesn't justify hiding information that can make the difference between success and failure in a student's career. "Perhaps students should be required to submit records of emotional or mental disturbance . . . after they have been admitted but before they enroll," the report says. "Maybe there really should be some form of 'permanent record.' "

"I hate this!" Cho wrote in an English paper the university did not disclose until The Post's Sari Horwitz revealed its existence. "I hate all these frauds! I hate my life. . . . This is it. . . . This is when you damn people die with me."

Lots of kids write provocative, even incendiary fiction. Nothing should discourage that. But as panel member Roger Depue, a longtime FBI profiler, says: "Just writing fantasies isn't the problem. It's the combination of disturbing writing and all the other danger signs."

Ultimate responsibility for the shootings rests squarely on Cho. But that does not absolve others of the need to act when something goes very wrong. Parents, as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said, cannot "just drop your child off on campus." Rather, they must seek out resident advisers and counselors and say, "Let me tell you about my precious child." And colleges must exhibit the same care toward young adults that parents, friends or good bosses do -- no matter how much the law may seek to separate us from our human obligations.

By Marc Fisher |  September 1, 2007; 11:11 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Mr. Fisher cannot make the distinction between the mentally ill and the criminally insane (Cho). And yes, the criminally insane are different from the rest of us.

Posted by: Tom Connors | September 2, 2007 9:47 AM

A little off topic but did anyone think the VA tech ads during the football game were ridiculous? I didnt realize they were at war and had to "prevail" as one young lady said.

Posted by: jrlemx | September 2, 2007 10:21 AM

I'm not sure Cho was criminally insane. A basic element of criminal insanity is typically that the person did not know his conduct was wrongful, and that doesn't appear to be the case here. Cho knew it was wrong to kill people. He was certainly crazy, possibly even in a psychotic sense. But I think Marc's point is a good one: his mental illness, whatever it was, had been diagnosed and managed by Fairfax County. It was only when Cho was abandoned to his own devices (by his parents, by Va Tech, by the state) that his demons overwhelmed him. He knew what he was doing. I think it lessens his responsibility for his actions to suggest otherwise.

Posted by: Kate | September 2, 2007 10:21 AM

The previous poster posing as a mental health professional contradicts herself.
First, Cho knew it was wrong to kill people(please provide your evidence for this supposition) - then, he is possibly psychotic. Demons - please define this in psychiatric terms. If this is what passes for mental expertise in Virginia, then we are in big trouble.

Posted by: Liz | September 2, 2007 10:56 AM

When a student was diagnosed with mumps at UVA last year, the entire school body was notified immediately for their protection.
Compare this with VT, whose admnistration was aware of a student making death threats and did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

Posted by: Sophie | September 2, 2007 11:38 AM

Sophie, you might want to check your facts on who knew what and when.

Marc, your column is very interesting, but you're addressing an issue without naming the issue. That issue is whether colleges should act in loco parentis. You see it as a necessity that the school intervene in the private affairs of one of its students. That is the view of someone who advocates in loco parentis. In fact, you argue that people should act as they would if it were their child.

This is a perfectly valid position, but you should be explicit in advocating it. Moreover, you should discuss the pros and cons of in loco parentis as well as explain the history of it. As I'm sure you know, it was once quit popular and was the mainstream view on the role of colleges with regard to their students. That changed in the 60s. We now view 18 year olds as adults and, like adults' relationship with any other institution, in loco parentis becomes somewhat contradictory. In fact, as we all know now, colleges are expected to treat 18 year olds as both children and adults, putting the colleges into a terrible legal bind. Essentially, college are "damned if they do, damned if they don't" when it comes to regulating their students.

So, if you're going to be a really good columnist about this issue, you need to discuss all the implications before coming down so squarely on one side.

Posted by: Ryan | September 2, 2007 1:27 PM


Please enlighten us with your mastery of the facts in this case. Cho's bizarre behavior has been well documented. Do you have a dog in this race?

Posted by: Sophie | September 2, 2007 2:29 PM

I have a job that requires me by law to divulge mental health treatment. I did, I was not stigmatized for it. It's in my files. Case closed. This is Washington, DC people, many of us have serious positions that require this kind of oversight.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 3, 2007 10:30 AM

A couple of comments: first of all, you have been beating the drumbeat for more public access to private medical information. A friend of mine has a 12-year old son who was diagnosed at 6 or 7 with, hush, selective mutism. He was, and is, a very sweet kid who interacted very well within his family but became abnormally panicked in company. They have worked with a counselor and he is a fairly normal 12-year old now. So are they now supposed to tell everyone until the rest of his life that, "Joey was diagnosed with selective mutism, you know, the same thing the VA Tech shooter had, so watch out."

Second, you seconded Gov. Kaine's remarks that parents need to stay involved in their student-childrens' lives. Has there ever been less necessary advice? A few days before the report came out the Post ran a story on how parents are involved in EVERYTHING their student children do, on how the experience of dropping children off at college has become a week-long process.

Posted by: Paul | September 4, 2007 10:00 AM

not all sense is common

Posted by: Anonymous | September 4, 2007 4:00 PM

I can't understand how the parents, who knew what kind of problems their son had, could have felt comfortable just turning him loose at VT...sure he was an adult, but even so, knowing that he benefitted and needed psychiatric care all through middle and high school, how could they not make sure he continued this care at VT or at least made some provision at VT for this?

If my child, even my 18 year old, had cystic fibrosis and needed ongoing, regular medical attention, wouldn't that be my responsibility as her parent to try to the best of my ability to give her that care even in college? But I guess it just demonstrates the stigma that mental illness carries as opposed to "physical" illness...

Posted by: Post Reader | September 6, 2007 1:24 PM

One thing has been overlooked by everyone. What if one student, just one, had taken the time to befriend Cho?

Posted by: Overlooked | September 8, 2007 10:53 PM

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