As parents, we think we’ve done our jobs well when our children turn 18 and go off to college. At college, we expect they will be safe and secure- safe to have a happy college experience and prepare for a bright future. This is what the parents of dozens of Virginia Tech students expected when they sent their children off to college. And tragically, this is not what happened. On April 16, 2007 mentally-disturbed student gunman Seung-Hui Cho entered Virginia Tech dorm West Ambler Johnston Hall and fatally shot two students, and several hours later opened fire in the Norris Hall academic building, killing 30 more students and faculty, setting the terrible U.S. record for the most deadly shooting by a lone gunman.
This month, an independent investigation panel formed by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, upon reviewing thousands of documents and interviewing over 200 people, found that lives could have been saved had Virginia Tech handled the Cho situation differently in several ways.
First of all, it found that, despite “clear warnings of mental instability” that were widely known by various individuals and departments in the university, the university “did not intervene effectively” and that “no one connected all the dots.” For example, one of Cho’s professors, famous writer Nikki Giovanni, was so disturbed by Cho’s writings and classroom behavior in the fall of 2005 that she told the head of the English department she would resign if Cho were not removed from her class. According to the panel’s report, the university began preliminary proceedings to have Cho’s mental health evaluated after this incident, but somehow Cho fell through the cracks and no one followed through with getting him psychiatric treatment. Around this same time, campus police were receiving complaints from female students that Cho was stalking them and engaging in other strange behaviors, but appropriate parties were not made known of these incidents. Eventually, Cho was even institutionalized in a mental health facility, an incident his parents never even knew about.
One of the reasons for the university’s ineffective response to Cho’s condition was that it misunderstood federal laws regarding privacy of health and education records – the university did not believe it could legally communicate Cho’s mental health problems to other university departments and Cho’s parents, when in reality, federal and state laws “afford ample leeway to share information in potentially dangerous situations” such as this situation. Had the university not made this mistake, students and faculty may not have lost their lives. In addition to this incorrect interpretation of privacy laws, the panel also found that the Cook Counseling Center at Virginia Tech “failed to provide needed support and services to Cho” due to a lack of resources and simple passivity, yet another fatal mistake on the university’s part.
In addition to errors made before April 16, Virginia Tech and its police department also made some huge mistakes on the day of April 16. The two shootings that occurred in West Ambler Johnston Hall occurred several hours before the shootings in Norris Hall, yet most of the campus community never knew about the earlier shootings and had no reason to believe they needed to be more vigilant in their activities that day. The campus police made the mistake of assuming that their initial lead in the two early-morning shootings was a good lead and that the suspect was really off the campus. Tragically, they did not “take sufficient action to deal with what might happen if the initial lead proved erroneous.” According to the panel, the police should have requested a campus-wide notification be sent out that two people had been killed and that the campus needed to be alert and vigilant, and senior administrative officials should have made sure such notification was sent out. Just perhaps, had this notification been sent, the death toll that day might have stayed at two instead of 32.
This Virginia Tech shooting is one of the most tragic events that has ever occurred in American history, much less on a college campus, typically assumed to be a place of low need for security. Our sincere and deepest sympathy goes out to the many victims and victims’ families of that day-especially since our personal injury law firm, Hajek, Shapiro, Cooper Lewis & Appleton, P.C., is based in Virginia.
For more information on this subject, please review our section on Wrongful Death.