Response to Virginia Tech shootings 'too slow'

A report into the Virginia Tech campus shootings in which 33 people died, including the killer who shot himself, has criticised the university for its tardy response and for failing to pick up warning signs regarding the gunman’s mental health.

The massacre of students and staff in Blacksburg, the tiny campus town in the Blue Ridge mountains in southern Virginia, was the worst mass shooting in modern United States history.

Seung-Hui Cho, a student with mental heath problems, killed the first two students on April 16 just after 7am at West Ambler Johnston (WAJ), a student residence, more than two hours before his rampage in classroom buildings across campus.

It wasn’t until 9.26am that the school sent the first email to students and faculty. He began shooting inside Norris Hall about 20 minutes later and then killed himself.

“Warning the students, faculty and staff might have made a difference ... so the earlier and clearer the warning, the more chance an individual had of surviving,” said the report, which was released late on Wednesday.

The eight-member panel, appointed by the Virginia governor, Timothy Kaine, said the Virginia Tech police “erred” in not issuing a campus-wide alert after the first killings, urging all students and staff to be cautious.

“Senior university administrators, acting as the emergency policy group, failed to issue an all-campus notification about the WAJ killings until almost two hours had elapsed. University practice may have conflicted with written policies,” the report said.

However, the report said a lockdown of the campus could not have stopped the mass shootings. “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,” it said. “Cho had started on a mission of fulfilling a fantasy of revenge.”

The report said Cho exhibited signs of mental health problems during his childhood, but that his schools responded well to these signs and, with his parents’ involvement, provided services to address his issues. He also received private psychiatric treatment and counselling for selective mutism—a childhood anxiety disorder characterised by a reluctance to speak in social situations—and depression.

In 1999, after the Columbine shootings, Cho’s schoolteachers observed suicidal and homicidal themes in his writings and recommended psychiatric counseling, which he received. He also received medication for a short time.

“Although Cho’s parents were aware that he was troubled at this time, they state they did not specifically know that he thought about homicide shortly after the 1999 Columbine school shootings,” the report said.

The panel was critical of the university for failing to pick up the various alarm signals about Cho’s mental state.

“During Cho’s junior year at Virginia Tech, numerous incidents occurred that were clear warnings of mental instability,” the report said.

“Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these incidents, the university did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots.”

University officials, the report said, explained their failures to communicate with each other on the false belief that such communications were prohibited under federal privacy laws.

“In reality, federal laws and their state counterparts afford ample leeway to share information in potentially dangerous situations,” the panel said.

The massacre at Virginia Tech reignited the long-standing debate on the availability of guns in America.

Technically, Cho was ineligible to buy guns under federal law as in 2005 he had been judged to be a danger to himself and had received treatment.

Besides that, Virginia is one of only 22 states that report any information about mental health to a federal database used to conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers.

But Virginia law did not clearly require that people such as Cho, who had been ordered in to outpatient treatment but not committed to an institution, be reported to the database.

The report said Kaine’s executive order to report all persons involuntarily committed for outpatient treatment has temporarily addressed this ambiguity in state law, but that a change is needed in Virginia law as well. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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