New Report Faults Va. Tech Response to Shooter Persistent signs that Seung-hui Cho might be disturbed and suicidal were largely ignored by his parents, teachers and counselors, a new report says. The report provides a comprehensive look at the student who killed himself after gunning down 32 students at the campus.
NPR logo New Report Faults Va. Tech Response to Shooter

New Report Faults Va. Tech Response to Shooter

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Ribbons adorn trees on the Virginia Tech campus drill field, one week after the deadly attacks in Blacksburg, Va. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

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Persistent signs that a student responsible for the April massacre at Virginia Tech might be disturbed and suicidal were largely ignored by his parents, teachers and counselors, according to a new report on the event.

Further, the report says an aggressive response from university officials and law enforcement alerting people that a gunman was loose would have saved lives.

The Virginia Tech Police Department "erred" when it waited too long to warn faculty and students about the first two victims killed by Seung-hui Cho on campus, and that students and staff should be cautious and alert.

"Senior university administrators, acting as the emergency Policy Group, failed to issue an all-campus notification" about the killings until almost two hours had elapsed, according to the report.

But the report concluded that while swifter warnings might have helped students and faculty, a lockdown of the 131 buildings on campus would not have been feasible.

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger responded that the report, from a panel commissioned by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, pointed out flaws and gave strong recommendations to deter another incident.

"It was painful to hear, blunt, and in some cases had critical findings," said Steger, "but it was necessary ... for finding ways to prevent such from happening again."

He said one of the recommendations to be immediately implemented is defining which responsibilities will be handled by law enforcement and other professionals outside the university to avoid miscommunication.

One victim's mother urged the governor to "show some leadership" and fire Steger; other parents have demanded accountability for the errors.

But Gov. Kaine said the school's officials had suffered enough without losing their jobs.

"I want to fix this problem so I can reduce the chance of anything like this ever happening again," the governor said. "If I thought firings would be the way to do that, then that would be what I would focus on."

Kaine said instead that parents of troubled children who are starting college should alert university officials, and those officials should "pick up the phone and call the parent" if they become aware of unusual behavior.

"The information needs to flow both ways," the governor said.

The eight-member panel appointed by Kaine spent four months investigating the attacks.

The report they produced provides a comprehensive look at Seung-hui Cho, the student who killed himself after gunning down 32 students at the campus.

In his junior year of high school, Cho declared "there is nothing wrong with me" and turned away from treatment, the report said. He was about to turn 18, so his parents decided they could do little to stop him. Cho's teachers made accommodations for his painful shyness, and he graduated with the grades and test scores that got him into Virginia Tech.

But at college his support system fell apart, and he grew increasingly anti-social.

"What the admissions staff at Virginia Tech did not see were the special accommodations that propped up Cho and his grades," including private sessions with teachers that spared him public speaking, said the report issued late Wednesday by a panel that investigated the mass shooting.

Despite "the system failures and errors in judgment that contributed to Cho's worsening depression, Cho himself was the biggest impediment to stabilizing his mental health," the report said.

"While Cho's emotional and psychological disabilities undoubtedly clouded his ability to evaluate his own situation, he, ultimately, is the primary person responsible for April 16, 2007," the report said.

Cho was born in South Korea and emigrated with his family to Maryland at age 8. They moved to Virginia a year later.

Cho and sister Sun were isolated by language barriers early on, and Cho remained quiet and withdrawn but had normal interests - basketball, TV, nonviolent video games, talk shows and action movies.

His relationship with his father was strained. He spoke little to either parent, and avoided eye contact. Campus acquaintances described the same behavior at Virginia Tech.

At the urging of teachers, he went to counseling and art therapy before starting seventh grade and was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. He rebuffed his parents' suggestions that he take part in more extracurricular activities, remaining withdrawn.

In March 1999, the eighth grader began drawing tunnels and caves that a therapist said could signify depression, or worse. A month later, after the murders at Columbine High School in Colorado, he wrote a paper saying he wanted to repeat the attacks - an exercise he would repeat in the spring of 2006 with a fictional tale that hinted at what was to come.

He was diagnosed in therapy with selective mutism, an anxiety disorder characterized by consistent failure to speak when speech is expected. Sufferers sometimes show "passive-aggressive, stubborn and controlling traits," the report said. Antidepressant drugs helped, and a year later, he was taken off the medication.

At Westfield High School, educators set up an individualized program to help him cope with mutism. He kept his counseling appointments and got good grades, graduating in June 2003 with a 3.5 grade point average in the honors program.

A school guidance counselor urged him to choose a small college close to home, but Cho was determined to attend Virginia Tech. The counselor offered Cho the name of a person to call if he had trouble adjusting, but Cho never called.

The first few years at college were uneventful. He requested a new freshman roommate after finding his first one too sloppy. His parents visited regularly, and his grades were good.

In his sophomore year, he moved in with a senior who was rarely home. He grew interested in writing and began to think about switching his major from business information systems to English.

He submitted a book idea to a publishing house, which rejected it.

Panel member Roger L. Depue, who oversaw the FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, called Cho's intelligence "his strongest attribute," but said he lacked any social skills.

"One of the big problems with being a loner is that one does not get helpful reality checks from people who can challenge disordered thinking," Depue wrote.

By 2005, letters home trickled off. He clashed with teachers and began writing violent, disturbing papers.

In November and December 2005, female residents complained of annoying instant messages, e-mails and phone calls. Cho was referred to counseling. After campus police told Cho to stop contacting one woman, he told his roommates, "I might as well kill myself now."

That triggered a psychiatric evaluation, an overnight stay and several brief phone sessions with counselors.

After that, the report says, English professors, university administrators and others missed several opportunities to share information and get Cho help.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press