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Virginia Tech anguishes over missed signals

The student slouched into his chair, his face wrapped in sunglasses, the brim of his baseball cap pulled down so low his eyes were almost lost. The Virginia Tech professor who took a seat across from him did so because there didn't really seem to be any other option.
Virginia Tech Shooting
Mourners visit the makeshift memorial in front of Burruss Hall on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on Saturday.Robert F. Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The student slouched into his chair, his face wrapped in sunglasses, the brim of his baseball cap pulled down so low his eyes were almost lost. The Virginia Tech professor who took a seat across from him did so because there didn’t really seem to be any other option.

But in three, hour-long talks that began that October day, Lucinda Roy tentatively edged away from the lesson plan for her class of one, moving beyond poetry and drawing the darkly troubled student, Seung-Hui Cho, into a tortured and all-too-brief conversation about the human need for friendship and the pain of being trapped inside oneself.

Looking back, it may have been the closest anyone ever came to reaching the brooding loner before he metamorphosed into the gunman responsible for the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

But soon after their meetings in 2005, Roy — who alerted university officials with her fears about the student and tried to get him into counseling — lost touch with Cho. The semester ended. She went on leave. They exchanged e-mails once or twice. Then nothing.

It is only now that she asks herself: What if ...?

‘What else could I have done?’
Roy has wrestled with that question endlessly in the past few days. And it is a variation of the one that now haunts this quarrystone campus and mountain town, an aching doubt that grows with each new revelation of missed signals and miscalculations, twists of fate and legal loopholes, and what appear increasingly like a series of lost opportunities to avert tragedy.

“That’s a question I’ll probably be asking myself the rest of my life,” Roy says. “What else could I have done? Could I have done more? I think probably all of us could have done more.”

In fact, it is not at all certain what might have stopped Cho from carrying out the rampage that left 32 people dead before he killed himself.

What has become clear is that at numerous points over the past year and a half, critical incidents took place that at least gave people around Cho _ as well as administrators, police and mental health providers _ the briefest windows into his state of mind, and perhaps chances to alter his path to destruction.

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t second-guess ourselves. And there’s probably no time when that is more true than after a tragedy unleashed by a fellow human being.

“I don’t think at the time you could have said he’s definitely going to shoot someone. But we had talked about he was likely to do that if there was someone that was going to do it,” says Andy Koch a junior from Richmond, Va., who was Cho’s suitemate last year.

“The first thing I thought of Monday was Seung ... and if that’s the first thing you think about, there were definitely some things that we should have done,” he says. But “I don’t know what we could have done.”

‘We all want to know why’
Many Virginia Tech students say that they do not want to second-guess, that they are content that university officials and those who came in contact with Cho did the best they could to prevent the tragedy.

But the story of the Virginia Tech massacre is a labyrinth of what-ifs. Many of them come with explanations any reasonable person would understand. There’s just one problem with such explanations: They do nothing to explain the horror of the most unspeakable acts.

“We’re all asking ‘what if,’ and we all want to know why,” says Fawn Price, a sophomore from Lebanon, Va. “But I don’t think we’re going to get the answers we need as soon as we need them.”

There were signs, so many signs.

Or so it appears in hindsight. But the people in the position to do something and the systems we create to protect ourselves seemed ill-equipped to deal with Cho.

There was an opportunity when two female students called university police, soon after Roy began meeting with Cho. They were being hounded, they complained — there were repeated phone calls, instant messages, notes. They did not know Cho and did not want to know him.

Then, in December 2005, Koch called police to say that his suitemate seemed suicidal.

Officers went to speak with Cho. He was referred to the local mental health center, and then sent to a psychiatric care hospital.

Here was Cho, safely away from campus, in the arms of the mental health system. What if it had been possible to keep him there?

It didn’t happen. A day or two later, he was released and returned to campus.

Rights of students vs. rights of communities
Virginia Tech officials say his care was out of their hands, and they could not know that he needed more help.

And what could they have done? When George Washington University and New York’s Hunter College expelled students who appeared suicidal, the students sued.

Schools have to “balance the rights of students with the rights of the communities and with what parents want, and its not an easy thing to do,” says Dr. Joanna Locke of the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent suicide and promote mental health among college students.

What about the mental health providers beyond campus who dealt directly with Cho? Couldn’t they have done something?

Not unless Cho shared his morbid fantasies, and people like Cho almost never do, says Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychologist who has profiled mass murderers.

Cho “is not a person who fell through the cracks. He’s a person who crawled into the cracks,” Welner says.

If mental health providers couldn’t follow him there, what if university police had pursued a case against him?

But that would have required the two female students to press stalking charges against Cho. And after speaking with Virginia Tech officers, the two women decided against it, police say.

Other female students said last week that they would almost certainly have made the same decision. Unusual behavior is not unusual on campus. No one wants to make trouble for others.

“Stalking happens on almost every campus across the country. It is a problem and people rarely know how to deal with it,” says Michele Galietta, a clinical psychologist who is researching the treatment of stalkers.

“I think that’s why sometimes officials are hesitant to take a heavy hand with it,” she says. “Keep in mind that this guy (Cho) didn’t threaten anyone. He did bizarre things.”

But that hasn’t stopped Galietta from mulling a whole series of what-ifs.

If the women had pursued a case, and if Cho had been convicted of stalking — rather than a misdemeanor charge of harassment — he would have entered the domain of the criminal justice system. If so, he might have served time and on release would have been assigned to a probation officer who could’ve have monitored his behavior. When he went to buy a gun, a criminal record would have prevented it, she says.

And that raises the emotionally charged question of Cho’s access to guns.

What if firearms laws had been tougher?

The problem with that question is that, as easy as it is to buy a gun in a state like Virginia, a case can be made that Cho still shouldn’t have made it through the net.

After Cho was evaluated at a psychiatric hospital in late 2005, a judge found that the student “presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.” That should have disqualified him from purchasing a gun under federal law, experts say.

But Virginia court officials insist that because the judge ordered only outpatient treatment — and did not commit Cho to a psychiatric hospital — they were not required to submit the information to be entered in the federal databases for background checks.

The thread that runs through nearly all the what-ifs at Virginia Tech is the most obvious and perhaps the most difficult to parse. What if the university police and administration had taken more decisive action, at any number of junctures?

That opens up a debate about whether Virginia Tech did enough to protect itself against threats from within.

There are many who are willing to accept school officials’ word that they took all possible security measures to prevent what happened here. College police departments are just as well-trained and sophisticated as any city department and they take just as aggressive a stance in preventing violence, says Ray Thrower, head of security at Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College and president-elect of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Deeper problems
If anything, Virginia Tech — one of the first campus police departments in the country to win professional accreditation — exemplifies that argument.

But could that argument be missing the point?

The problem with Virginia Tech’s policing — and with most other college’s approach to security — runs deeper than training or resources or dedication, says S. Daniel Carter of Security on Campus Inc., a nonprofit watchdog group. The problem is mindset, he says.

On a campus, everyone is a big family — the administrators, the students, the faculty and the university’s security officers.

As a result, “the tendency is to overlook or downplay potential problems,” Carter says. “They don’t want to think that their campus community members — their students — could be that dangerous.”

Carter believes that mind-set was almost certainly a factor in how Virginia Tech officers handled — or mishandled — previous complaints about Cho. And it was clearly a factor in many of the things that went wrong early on a flurry-filled morning last Monday when a campus just stirring from its weekend slumber was shaken by gunfire, he says.

The dorm Cho chose for as his first target requires a magnetic card for entry. But students say they let each other into one another’s dorms all the time. What if the security system had been more comprehensive?

When officers responded to a 911 call at West Ambler Johnston Hall and found the bodies of resident assistant Ryan Clark and freshman Emily Hilscher on the fourth floor, they began investigating the killings as a crime of domestic violence. The problem, Carter says, is that they even as they pursued that lead, investigators assumed as fact a theory that hadn’t yet been proven.

What if they’d considered the possibility of shooter with a different profile, one who had no intention of stopping with two victims?

Administrators and police did not decide to lock down the campus and notify students of the violence taking place around them until the shootings that left 31 more students dead in Norris Hall. What if they’d acted sooner?

It is the last in a heart-rending series of what-ifs. Together, they weigh on the mind but not because it is essential to lay blame, or to find a culprit.

They matter because we need to understand. Because to know what, if anything could have been done differently, is the only means we have for squeezing a drop of reason, comfort or understanding from utter senselessness.

What if we had it all to do all over again? Would Reema Samaha have lived to dance once more? Would Michael Pohle still be here to don cap and gown this spring and clutch his diploma?

What if? Can there be anyone who hasn’t asked themselves that question in recent days and not felt the ache of knowing it can never be adequately answered?

That is a feeling that Chris Flynn, director of Virginia Tech’s mental health counseling center, is beginning to understand all too well.

What if? The question plays again and again through his head.

That, he says, is a question he’ll ask “for the rest of my life.”