Virginia Tech Report on the April 16th Massacre

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's report on the Virginia Tech shooting was released a few weeks ago. I decided to read this report in order to see what it said; would it be a case of finger-pointing and 20/20 hindsight?

The report starts off on a bad foot. It claims from the outset that "the system" dropped the ball and that people should have been warned about Cho's dangerous nature. However after reading through I find that most of the report is, in fact, grounded in reality and does not make recommendations which are overreaching in nature.

The most alarming suggestions in the report are those concerning the "system" which failed Cho:
He was enrolled in an Individual Educational Program to deal with his shyness and lack of responsiveness.... Therapy continued ... through his junior year. He had no behavior problems, kept his appointments, and made no threats. He got good grades and adjusted reasonably to the school environment. Both the guidance office in school and the therapist felt he was successful. He graduated with a 3.5 GPA in the Honors Program.
there are suggestions that Virginia Tech should have told Cho's parents about his detention at a mental health facility, or that Cho's high-school should have informed VT that they were about to accept a monster into their classes. However the reality is that Cho, in high school, took part in a mental health program which helped him deal with his shyness and allowed him to adjust reasonably to school. His behaviour and grades were excellent and both his therapist and guidance counsellor felt they were successful.

The problems began when Cho couldn't deal with the university life, due to his mental illness. However the notion that the school should be calling his parents is a dangerous one: at some point children have to be considered adults and the schools should not be interfering by bringing in his parents. It's not up to the school to make such a decision; for one thing he may not even be on good terms with his parents. If the school felt he was a danger and they couldn't have him on campus, that would be their decision, but the decision of what to do with him afterwards should not involve calling his parents.

Anyway, Cho was forced to seek mental help while at school. The problem is, identifying psychopaths is not easy. A psychiatrist ruled that Cho was not a danger to himself or others, but subsequently a judge ruled that he was. Clearly the psychiatrist was wrong (though the danger may only have arisen later), but the real problem with this part of the story is that Cho was sentenced to out-patient treatment but he did not complete the treatment. Neither the designation as a dangerous person, nor his failure to complete the treatment were recorded, and he was not arrested. Furthermore, his designation as a dangerous person made him ineligible to purchase firearms in Virginia, yet the requisite paperwork was never filled out, so the gun dealer didn't turn up any issues when he did a background-check.

The most outrageous idea presented in the report is that
No one from Virginia Tech ever told his parents about his detention at a mental health facility, his stalking of students or his macabre writings. (The Toronto Star, via AP).
"the admission’s staff at Virginia Tech did not see were the special accommodations that propped up Cho and his grades. Those scores reflected Cho’s knowledge and intelligence, but they did not reflect another component of grades: class participation. Since that aspect of grading was substantially modified for Cho due to the legally mandated accommodations for his emotional disability, his grades appeared higher than they otherwise would have been."(page 37)
I know several people who never participated in high-school classes; should this be grounds for barring a student from school, or putting them on a watch-list? Please.

The remainder of the report, however, is very balanced. It discusses the logistics of cancelling classes, and other things the VT staff could have done to increase student safety. The conclusion is that cancelling classes or locking-down the buildings was impractical or impossible, and would have had little benefit. Indeed they mention situations where a gunman had counted on a disturbance which brought people out of buildings, so that he could shoot them. Locking down the buildings could have locked thousands of students outside with Cho wandering among them.

The real recommendations of the report are that the VT safety committee was not well equipped to communicate quickly and they reacted slowly to the problems. This led to a significant delay in the emails sent to students which mentioned the first killings; the result was that by the time the university sent out the warnings Cho was moments away from starting his second killing spree. The report notes that the university lacked a good communication system, but that one was under-construction at the time. Alerting students sooner would likely have had the effect that someone would have been more alert and reported the chains on the doors of the building Cho was in. However, the report states on page 87, "Despite the above findings, there does not seem to be a plausible scenario of university response to the double homicide that could have prevented a tragedy of considerable magnitude on April 16." Accordingly the report suggests that the physical security of the buildings could be improved; had the classrooms been equipped with locks Cho would have been unable to enter more than one room; had the building doors been impervious to chaining-shut the police could have entered sooner. These are sensible recommendations that will likely be adopted by buildings around the world.

The VT report was an opportunity to spread much blame around, but in the end common sense prevailed. Simple physical security, rapid response from the campus safety team, and preventing the sale of firearms to designated-dangerous persons are all that are needed here.

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