Video: Panel: System failed at Va. Tech

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/30/2007 5:27:48 PM ET 2007-08-30T21:27:48

Virginia Tech’s president, facing calls for his ouster, defended his university’s response to the nation’s deadliest school shooting, saying Thursday that officials couldn’t have known the gunman would attack twice.

“Nobody can say for certain what would have happened if different decisions were made,” President Charles Steger told a news conference.

“The crime was unprecedented in its cunning and murderous results,” he said.

A governor-appointed panel that investigated the April 16 massacre at the Blacksburg campus released a report late Wednesday criticizing Virginia Tech officials, saying they could have saved lives if they had acted more quickly to warn students about the first shootings that morning at a dormitory and that a killer was on the loose.

Instead, it took administrators more than two hours to send students and staff an e-mail warning. The shooter had time to leave the dormitory, mail a videotaped confession and manifesto to NBC News, then return to campus and enter a classroom building, chain the doors shut and kill 31 more people, including himself.

“Warning the students, faculty and staff might have made a difference,” the panel in its report. “The earlier and clearer the warning, the more chance an individual had of surviving.”

President defends the school's actions
Steger said the administration was responding during the hours that passed after the first two students were slain in the dormitory.

“The notion that there was a two-hour gap is a great misconception,” Steger said. “There was continuous action and deliberations from the first event until the second, and they made a material difference in the results of the second event.”

“Cho is responsible for the carnage,” he said. “In respect to suggested changes, we recognize, as does the panel, that no plausible scenario was made for how this horror could have been prevent once he began that morning.

“I am not aware of anything the police learned that would have indicated that a mass murder was imminent.”

One victim’s mother urged the governor to “show some leadership” and fire Steger, and other parents demanded accountability for the errors.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, however, 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.

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

It found that even before the killings, the university had failed to properly care for the mentally troubled student gunman, Seung-Hui Cho. On April 16, a quick warning could have made a difference in 31 lives.

“The alert should have been issued and classes should have been closed,” the panel’s chairman, Gerald Massengill, told the AP Thursday.

The missed signals make the Virginia Tech case similar to other school shootings . The U.S. Secret Service, which studied 37 school attacks, found that most attackers had engaged in behavior that caused others concern.

Breakdown in communication
The first two victims were shot in the dormitory shortly after 7 a.m. It wasn’t until 9:26 a.m. that the school sent an e-mail to students and faculty warning: “Shooting on campus. The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case.” Cho opened fire inside Norris Hall about 20 minutes later.

Derek O’Dell, who was shot in the arm at Norris Hall, said he probably wouldn’t have gone to class that morning if he knew there was a killer on the loose.

“I don’t think anybody would have,” he said.

But the panel also concluded that a lockdown of the 131 buildings on campus would not have been feasible. And while the first message sent by the university could have gone out at least an hour earlier and been more specific, Cho likely still would have found more people to kill, it said.

“There does not seem to be a plausible scenario of a university response to the double homicide that could have prevented the tragedy of considerable magnitude on April 16,” the report said. “Cho had started on a mission of fulfilling a fantasy of revenge.”

The report detailed a breakdown in communication about the gunman, who had shown signs of mental health problems for years.

His middle school teachers had found signs of suicidal and homicidal thoughts in his writings after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. He received psychiatric counseling and was on medication for a short time. In 2006, he wrote a paper for his Virginia Tech creative writing class about a young man who hates students at his school and plans to kill them and himself, the report said.

The university’s counseling center failed to give Cho the support he needed despite the warnings, including his referral to the center in 2005 because of bizarre behavior and concerns he was suicidal, the panel said. It blamed a lack of resources, misinterpretation of privacy laws and passivity.

Individuals and departments at Virginia Tech were aware of incidents that suggested his mental instability, but “did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots,” the report said.

'Prompt and effective' police response
The report said the response by university and Blacksburg police to the dormitory shootings was well coordinated, and said the police response at Norris Hall was “prompt and effective,” as was triage and evacuation of the wounded. But it also noted university police may have erred in prematurely concluding that the first two shootings were the result of a domestic dispute.

“As you read the report, it’s clear that so many of the mistakes that were made result from a failure of leadership at the very top levels of the university,” said Cathy Read, stepmother of slain freshman Mary Karen Read.

Celeste Peterson, whose freshman daughter Erin was killed, said the governor should act forcefully and fire Steger and campus police Chief Wendell Flinchum.

“I love Virginia Tech, too. My daughter loved Virginia Tech,” the grieving mother said, but “we have to separate Virginia Tech brick and mortar from the administration, which is inept.”

This is Kaine’s “opportunity to step up and do the right thing,” she said Thursday. In Virginia, university presidents serve at the pleasure of the Board of Visitors, which is appointed by the governor.

William O’Neil, father of slain graduate student Daniel O’Neil, called it outrageous that no one had been held accountable. “With the exception, of course, of Cho, no one from the university is held accountable,” he said.

Diane Strollo, whose daughter Hilary was shot and survived, said she was thankful the panel recognized that an earlier warning could have derailed Cho’s plans for Norris Hall.

“Had some or all of the student body been notified that 2 students were gunned down that morning, they may have had heightened sensitivity to the sound of gunshots and other suspicious activity,” Strollo wrote in an e-mail to the AP. “One or two minutes of notice may have been critical in saving more lives in Norris Hall.”

The Associated Press and MSNBC.com's Bill Dedman contributed to this report.

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