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Va. Tech Ignored More Cho Warning Signs

It's been clear almost from the start that Virginia Tech's counselors, administrators and professors had seen far too many warning signals about Seung-Hui Cho's unstable mental condition in the months before he shot dead 32 students and professors in April, 2007.

But a new investigation by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, based on an archive of records to be made public this month under the state's legal settlement with families of the victims, reveals that the number of chances the university had to see that something was terribly wrong was larger--and the failure to act more appalling--than we had previously known.

In a three-part series, Times-Dispatch reporter David Rees traces Cho's troubles back to middle school, finding that the future shooter was already talking about suicide and murder as an early adolescent, that (unknown to Virginia Tech) he had weekly therapy sessions during his first two years in high school in Fairfax County, and that even the Virginia Tech professors who did take the time to notice Cho's troubles and reach out to help him ended up doing little more than coddling him--rewarding his most troubling writing with grades of B and even A.

The series reveals disturbing efforts by university administrators to keep news of the shootings quiet, even in the crucial minutes before the school was locked down that spring morning. Twenty minutes before campus officials ordered a lockdown of the campus, "an assistant vice president [of the university] asked counseling-center staff to keep news of the first shootings confidential," the Richmond paper writes. One hundred and five minutes elapsed between when the Tech police chief learned of the first shooting and when the campus was shut down.

A timeline assembled by the newspaper reveals that there were several more incidents than have been reported until now that should have launched actions to help Cho and to separate him from those who felt threatened by him.

As early as September, 2005, Cho was complaining about bug bites, but there were no bugs to be found. He harassed a fellow Tech student who had also attended his high school--and when he was confronted, Cho blamed his non-existent twin brother. No one from the university's disciplinary office bothered to follow up on the incident.

Cho kept knives in his room, unsettling his dorm director so much that she wrote to the college's chief of dorm discipline asking that someone pay attention--there's no record that anyone did.

Despite a long series of incidents, a Tech official noted for the record in the summer of 2007 that somehow the "system worked" in Cho's case. And an English professor, Lisa Norris, praised Cho for a story he wrote about a young man named Ax Manson who is killed by his father to end the story. "Your stories are original & memorable, & you handle violence in interesting ways," the professor wrote. She gave Cho a B.

By Marc Fisher |  February 4, 2009; 9:42 AM ET
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I wouldn't be surprised to learn that blood-filled violent fantasies are rather common in college writing classes these days.

Posted by: Cossackathon | February 4, 2009 10:17 AM

This reporter is obviously not a Palahniuk fan.... Maybe the STATE university should have banned violent writing.

Hind sight is 20/20, but I don't see anything in this story that would make one think ahead of time that this guy was going to commit the worst firearm mass murder in U.S. history.

Posted by: ghokee | February 4, 2009 10:29 AM

Fisher, give it up. Nothing you write here is news. Let the RTD fill up their pages dredging up old news. Lessons have been learned, legislation has and will come. It's time to move on and leave the families and the many lives that have been ripped apart in peace.

Posted by: jbfromfc | February 4, 2009 10:54 AM

Gotta agree, a lot of 20/20 hindsight here. What stands out to me is VT not being informed they were getting a student who was in therapy.

I also think the notion that you can somehow 'lockdown' a campus community of 60,000 people in something under a few minutes is an outright fantasy.

I have no connection whatsoever to VT.

Posted by: JkR- | February 4, 2009 10:58 AM

The problem, Marc, is that these "warning" signs are not terribly strong (believe me, they could have been much stronger). Moreover, it's not clear how many students show these warning signs and do NOT go on to shoot people. Do 1% go on to shoot people? 0.1%? 0.01%? Quite frankly, writing about murder and/or suicide is as unusual as you think.

Also, blaming VT professors for giving B's and A's -- saying that they "coddled" him -- is absurd. You don't give B's and A's to "reward" students -- you give them B's and A's as a mechanism of evaluating the quality of their work. Jeez, Marc, should professors only give good grades to writing about subjects that they like?

Posted by: rlalumiere | February 4, 2009 11:13 AM

Oh, and one more thing, by your definition, Marc, Stephen King has sent out FAR more warning signs. Should we arrest him? Should his teachers in school have given him bad grades (maybe then he wouldn't have gone on to the become the psychopathic killer that he is)? Should his books be banned?

Posted by: rlalumiere | February 4, 2009 11:15 AM

Thank you all for your comments. This article is actually a very big deal to the families of the victims. You see, they knew a lot of this information before any of us did therefore justified in pursuing legal action. I also know there is still more everyone does not know that will be brought to light very soon I'm sure. Unfortunately, many readers had horrible things to say about the families becasue of their leagal actions before knowing any of the true facts.

Posted by: MELCHRIS | February 4, 2009 11:32 AM

Shoulda, coulda, woulda - is it great to have perfect 20/20 hindsight.

Posted by: rikkirat | February 4, 2009 11:40 AM

I can't believe I'm doing this, but, from National Review:

"Your question about how much a student has to do to get kicked off of campus is a serious one, but I'm not sure that it has as easy an answer as you think it does.

Cho was clearly mentally ill, but unfortunately that's not as rare as you would think. ... I have had several students to whom I suggested counseling. On what grounds should we expel students? Extreme creepiness? You make your fellow students nervous, get out? ... I assure you that everyone at Virginia Tech would be interested in knowing how to separate the mass murderers from the hundreds of harmless crazies we have studying (and teaching) here.

Cho was investigated by the police for "annoying" two girls, he cooperated and broke off contact. He was processed through the campus discipline system, he complied. He was encouraged to seek mental health care, he went to St. Albans. The police claim that they never had a report of any direct threat that he made. I have yet to hear anyone seriously suggest that he could have been involuntarily hospitalized. "

Posted by: wiredog | February 4, 2009 11:42 AM

As the parent of a young child who has emotional problems and has violent outbursts at school I worry about his future. But our society and medical system must do more to help these children while they are young--before it gets to the point at college age. My experience is that mental health professionals do not take insurance because the insurance companies pay almost nothing to them. I must pay for everything out of pocket. The school system just wants to pass this problem child along to some program for disturbed children which will essentially will deny him a good education. I believe that if we would as a "village" to help these children we perhaps will get such disturbed people who as young adults completely snap.

Posted by: SilverSpring2 | February 4, 2009 11:47 AM

Ok, anyone comparing Cho to Stephen King can't possibly be serious. King was an active, engaged student at UMaine. He wrote a column for the school paper, he held part time jobs—he was in no way a crazy recluse who people were afraid of. And although I've never seen Cho's writings, I'm guessing there would be no confusion between them and King's, who's always been more interested in the supernatural than the gory.

Posted by: jw703 | February 4, 2009 11:54 AM

Posted by: jw703 | February 4, 2009 11:54 AM

Of course it's not serious, but nor should the notion that any student with dark, macabre writing themes be referred for psychiatric counseling and isolated from the student body.

It wasn't my point, but it is a valid one.

Posted by: JkR- | February 4, 2009 1:31 PM

jbfromfc, to be fair many of us criticize journalists for not following up on stories after the initial swirl of publicity. You can judge the importance for yourself, but this report certainly contains information that was not known or reported during the events.

Posted by: Cossackathon | February 4, 2009 3:13 PM

Actually, Cossackathon, the problem is that Marc does a poor job on the follow-up, engaging in highly biased "reporting" (i.e. not really reporting at all). None of the evidence that he talks about as coming from this report really indicates that VT had true warning signs about Cho. So, in this case, this follow-up is just sensationalism.

If Marc wanted to do a good job on the follow-up, he would show that these warning signs set Cho apart from all other students. That is, he would tell us that writing violent stories means that you will go out and kill people. Of course, he can't say that because it's not true -- many, many people, including students, write violent stories and yet do not go on to become mass murderers.

In fact, I think that you could find quite a few college students whose psychological problems could fill a three-part series. Yet such students do not go on to commit murder. As I wrote in an earlier post, we simply do not have the numbers on this -- how many students have psychological problems yet do not become violent. We need to know that before we can really claim that Cho presented warning signs that were ignored by VT.

As usual, Marc just sort of engages in a sensationalistic treatment of the topic rather than a good analytical treatment.

Posted by: rlalumiere | February 4, 2009 4:42 PM

I recommend that the author spend some time in the general counsel's office any state university in order to see the incredible balancing act that must take place when dealing with student issues. Because of a combination of federal student privacy laws, common law tort standards, and constitutional law decisions (and a pervasive atmosphere of "someone's going to pay for my pain, even if they didn't cause it!") it has become extremely difficult to take any kind of action against a student (or a faculty member) for virtually anything. Administrators are paralyzed by cases like this one: take action and get sued by the student, do nothing and get sued by a victim. It is a no win situation that cases like this only make worse. Yes, it is beyond horrible that the victims of this sick individual should have suffered. But does that automatically mean that someone on the university staff acted in a negligent manner? No, unless you are a trial lawyer or a columnist.

Posted by: g1956 | February 4, 2009 9:29 PM

Like most large bureaucracies they dont learn and colleges and universities are the worse. Now alleged sexual harassment will get you kicked out or before the disciplinary board quicker than a banker with a $15million bonus gets before Congress. The communists and socialists running our colleges and universites first do not want to work and second do not want to offend the opressed and downtrodden.

VT took faster action against a male student from Bath County who wore a Confederate flag belt buckle. When he refused to cease wearing it they expelled him. So much for freedom of speech

Posted by: sheepherder | February 5, 2009 7:07 AM

Extreme creepiness? Yes. If it's so creepy as to freak out A WHOLE CLASSROOM; I think you can judge that is not in any way, shape, form or fashion, normal behavior. Coupled with the knives, the disciplinary issues, etc. should be enough.

As far as the grading goes, based on what we've seen and heard of Chos command of the English language, it's fairly safe to say that he was socially promoted and given grades higher than he deserved.

Posted by: ronjaboy | February 5, 2009 7:43 AM

And an English professor, Lisa Norris, praised Cho for a story he wrote about a young man named Ax Manson who is killed by his father to end the story. "Your stories are original & memorable, & you handle violence in interesting ways," the professor wrote. She gave Cho a B.


Fine. If it deserved a B (by Virginia Tech standards, whatever those may be for this particular class), it deserved a B. And by the way, even if it should have been a C-plus, just for the sake of the argument and not because we have any reason to think so,... was this really a tragedy about grade inflation !!?

It's as though the killer had worn Crocs (he did not) and suddenly the whole thing turned into a pro- and anti-Crocs, fashion versus comfort discussion. While I may have strong views on Crocs myself, they would have been about as relevant to this horrific, devastating story as the "did he really deserve a B on that writing assignment" question.

Someone else noted that Stephen King set off more warning signs in terms of his chosen writing topics. Writing about upsetting topics is pretty much the core of most creative writing classes, as far as I can tell. Again, many of these are signs that point to trouble only in hindsight, and some don't seem to point to it even now.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | February 5, 2009 4:43 PM

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