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Virginia Tech Report Criticizes School Officials

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Four and a half months after the shootings at Virginia Tech, a state panel has issued its report on the tragedy, and it has found fault with the response on a number of levels. Student Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people in April before turning his gun on himself. The state panel concluded that at least some lives might have been saved if university leaders and others had done more both before and after the shootings began.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Richmond.

ADAM HOCHBERG: The 300-page report provides a comprehensive account of the deadliest campus shooting in American history, and it details several missed opportunities that might have prevented it. The report found clear warning signs that Cho was severely unstable, but says the mental health system failed to help him. It found that Cho purchased his weapons illegally but says ambiguous laws failed to stop him. And it concluded that once Cho began firing on April 16th, the university's response was uncertain and slow.

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine released the report this morning.

Governor TIM KAINE (Democrat, Virginia): What we have to do now is to challenge ourselves to make changes that will reduce the risk of future violence on the campuses across this nation. If we act with that as our goal, we will honor the lives and the sacrifices of all those who suffered.

HOCHBERG: Much of the panel's study concerned Cho's behavior on the two years before the shooting, a period when his professors began raising concerns about his disturbing writings, when several of his fellow students complained he harassed them, and when a judge ordered him to get psychological treatment.

Yet, the report says Cho's mental health care was sporadic and disjointed. Agencies didn't share information about his condition because they feared running afoul of medical privacy laws.

And panel member Roger Depue, a former FBI agent, says nobody seemed to recognize that Cho posed a threat.

Mr. ROGER DEPUE (Member, Virginia Tech Review Panel; former FBI Agent): When you begin to write compositions that are extremely violent and that talk about Columbine - they're just a flag. It's a red flag. But no one was putting it all together and saying, hey, we have a serious problem here. How are we going to address it for the safety of our community?

HOCHBERG: The panel praised some aspects of the response the day of the shooting. It says police arrived on the scene quickly and emergency medical teams performed well. But it sharply criticized the university for waiting about two hours before notifying faculty and students that a gunman was lose.

When Cho shot his first two victims in a dormitory, police wrongly guessed it was an isolated incident, and Governor Kaine says that left the campus off guard when Cho open fire again in a classroom building.

Gov. KAINE: The failure to give notice in a prompt fashion was a clear error, and the report, I believe, fairly indicates that that could have made a difference in this particular tragedy, but it probably wouldn't have averted the tragedy.

HOCHBERG: Virginia Tech President Charles Steger responded to the report this afternoon by noting the school already has made changes since the shooting. For instance, improving its mental health services and installing systems to better notify students about emergencies.

But some victims' family members say much more extensive changes are needed on campus.

Pete Read, whose daughter, Mary, was fatally shot in French class, says today's report is an indictment of Virginia Tech's leadership, and he wants President Steger held accountable.

Mr. PETE READ (Victim's father): There's an element of lack of confidence to the circumstances and just a continued denial of reality, continued insistence that we did everything to the best that we could under the circumstances and that nothing really would have changed the outcome. And I think this report really burst that bubble.

HOCHBERG: Read praised the panel for what he called a hard-hitting report. He says family members now will push state and federal leaders to follow up on the committee's more than 90 recommendations. Among other things, the measures would strengthen the mental health system, tighten gun regulations, and change medical privacy laws so that they don't inhibit efforts to remove dangerous students from the nation's colleges.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Richmond, Virginia.

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