Lessons Learned at Virginia Tech: What Went Wrong?

Apr 13, 2015

This week, we mark the 8th anniversary of this country’s deadliest shooting rampage – an attack that left 33 dead at Virginia Tech. 

Dr. Bela Sood is a psychiatrist at Virginia Commonwealth University – a senior professor of child mental health policy and the author of a new book, The Virginia Tech Massacre: Strategies and Challenges for Improving Mental Health Policy on Campus and Beyond.  She was appointed by then Governor Tim Kaine to study what had happened at Tech and why,  and to offer suggestions for preventing future tragedies. 

In that role, she peered into the past, hoping to learn more about Seung-Hui Cho – a Korean-American student who came to this country at the age of 8 – settling with his parents and sister in Northern Virginia.

“He was very quiet, very withdrawn, and his parents were duly worried about that and obtained some counseling for him, and the parents were very hard-working, and they made sure that he kept all of his counseling sessions.”

Doctors prescribed anti-depressant medication, and Cho’s school system took his problems into account when assessing his academic performance.  He did so well academically that he was admitted to Virginia Tech, but in moving to Blacksburg, Dr. Sood says Cho lost the support system that sustained him through high school.

“It sounds as though he got somewhat lost, and at the point where things came together as a perfect storm in his own mind, he began to unravel, and unfortunately unlike the high school situation and the middle school situation where there were people who had assisted him to pull himself together, that did not happen.”

Fellow students and faculty members knew something was wrong.

“The English department, particularly the chairman of the department as well as another professor were very, very concerned, because they were seeing his creative work become very dark, very threatening, and then there were behaviors in the dorm which indicated that this was a man who was kind of suspicious, difficult to understand, and particularly viewed as bizarre in his behavior.”

When Cho threatened to kill himself, a court ordered that he be detained.  Police took him to the hospital for observation.

“He went into the hospital.  He was observed overnight.  As he did not meet criteria for being held, he was let go, but with the understanding that he would follow up with the counseling center.”

Bela Sood, M.D.

But Cho didn’t go to the counseling center, and no one knew he’d been diagnosed and treated for mental illness back home.

“No one – no one connected with the parents.  “

There were concerns and misunderstandings about the law – what federal regulations known as HIPAA and FERPA allowed administrators to do.

“The faculty were clearly at a loss, frustrated, angry and bitter about the fact that they are put into positions where they notice things, and because they don’t have the expertise, they are really in a dilemma.  Should they talk about it, report it?  And if they do, what’s happening?  Not much.”

On April 16th, 2007 Cho killed two people at a dorm on campus, then returned to his own room to record a chilling confession.

“You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today, but you decided to spill my blood.  You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.  The decision was yours.  Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”

Armed with two handguns and plenty of ammunition, he entered Norris Hall, chained and locked all three entrances, and fatally shot 30 more people before taking his own life.

Much has changed in Blacksburg and at other schools since 2007. 

In our next report, we’ll look at what colleges and universities have done to try and prevent future tragedies. 

Part Two: Preventing Future Tragedies

It’s been eight years since a disturbed student went on a shooting spree at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people before taking his own life.  Since then, colleges and universities have made significant changes to prevent future tragedies.  

Since the shootings at Virginia Tech, a cottage industry has sprung up around campus security.  

“These are challenging times for colleges and universities. Crime on campus is more concerning than ever, tragic shootings, student suicides, injuries, suspicious behaviors, concerning events are coming from every direction.”

Companies like this one promote high tech solutions to the risk of violent attacks -- making it easier for students, faculty and staff to report suspicious behavior, and allowing schools to warn and advise people of dangerous situations.  Tech itself came up with more than 240 ideas for making its campus safer, according to spokesman Mark Owczarski.

"Things like removing the left-sided hardware of double doors so that you couldn’t chain them closed.  We added locks to classrooms so that people couldn’t come in - you could lock yourself in.  We added message boards.  We will use Twitter, we will use Facebook . We will use any form of communication. We have outdoor sirens,  sand within moments, depending on your circumstances -- whether you’re asleep in bed, or on a bus, in a classroom or walking across our drill field,  you will receive that alert probably within the first 30-60 seconds of it being sent."

Even smaller schools like the University of Mary Washington have elaborate systems for warning students of any serious threat. 

"The system can even capture campus network computers, so if you’re sitting at your computer and you have headphones on and your phone's not available, your screen can be overtaken by the university," says Doug Searcy, UMW’s Vice President for Student Affairs.

But the biggest change was ordered by Virginia’s legislature.  All public universities in this state must have a Threat Assessment team.  At UVA, Dean of Students Allen Groves  explains the composition of such committees, which meet regularly on campus.

“Around the table you had the counseling center, you had experts in school violence, legal counsel, you had the police, student affairs, all these people around the table now talking about cases and deciding what should be the right intervention and follow up.”

Tech, UVA and other schools are doing more training with faculty members on how to spot worrisome behavior, and reaching out to students.  Tim Davis is Director of UVA’s Counseling and Psychological Services.  

"Not all students are going to come to the counseling center.  We see about 9% of the student body every year.  We know that we can reach all the students, but it means that we’ve got to be getting out of our offices.  We’ve got to be initiating the contact with them in order to have that impact."

Virginia Tech makes a point of keeping families in the loop.

"It’s important for us to be partners with the students and with their families to help manage the things that they need to manage beyond homework, tests, exams and all of that," says Owczarski.

And at Virginia Commonwealth, contact between freshmen and administrators is mandatory. Here’s Vice Provost Chuck Clink.

"We use intrusive advising. First year students have to meet with their academic advisor, so when students are having difficulty there is something who can direct them to resources."

Many schools have added mental health professionals and police officers. Virginia Tech became the first campus in the nation to be certified by an independent non-profit organization that established rigorous national standards for emergency planning.  And Virginia is the only state in the nation to require Threat Assessment teams at all levels of the educational system.  Still, experts say serious risks remain. We’ll look at the challenges ahead in our next report. 

Part Three: Why Risks Remain

It’s been eight years since a lone gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, then took his own life.  In that time, colleges and universities have made many changes designed to prevent future tragedies, but real and growing problems.

Media coverage of mass shootings in this country could help to head off future attacks by making people more likely to report evolving problems.  Allen Groves is Dean of Students at the University of Virginia.

"There’s no question  that students today know that they have an obligation to come forward if they have a concern about health and safety."

But Gene Deisinger, an international expert on campus security who recently retired from Virginia Tech, says news reports could lead to other shootings.

"That small group of people among us see all the attention and it fosters their own progression down a pathway to violence, sometimes with an intent to beat the casualty numbers of those that have come before them."

While few people suffering mental illness become violent, the numbers of students battling serious psychiatric problems at college is growing. Tim Davis is Director of UVA’s Counseling & Psychological Services.  

"They do come onto grounds, sometimes with established mental health diagnoses, serious diagnoses, whether it’s bi-polar or history of suicide attempts or disabling anxiety, and when they come they seek mental health support in large quantities."

Doug Searcy, Vice President at the University of Mary Washington, agrees.

"Students that come to college campuses are more often now on medication -- anywhere between 11 and 13% of students who come to us.  That hasn’t been the case historically."

And this year, UCLA’s annual survey of in-coming freshmen found the lowest level of emotional well-being in over 30 years.  Again, UVA’s Tim Davis.

"Stress is up, depression is up, time in extracurricular is down, time with friends is down."

At Virginia Commonwealth University, psychiatrist Dr. Bela Sood  says mental illness is likely on campus in part because drugs and alcohol can precipitate problems, but also because psychiatric problems are widespread in our culture.

"The statistics indicate that one in five individuals have some sort of mental illness which requires intervention.  You are going to have a community of individuals on any campus who are going to have this, surrounded by substance abuse, surrounded by conditions which cause insomnia," she says.

Fortunately, Tim Davis adds, students are more willing to admit they’re having problems and to seek help.

"The stigma about seeking mental services, thank goodness, is coming down.  We think that is going to accentuate the demand.  Our demand is up 92% in the last 11 years."

But Mary Washington’s Doug Searcy says not all schools have the resources to provide on-going support.  

"Many institutions have a short-term model, 6 -12 sessions per student.  We don’t really limit those at this time but there are times we may have to refer out to a professional in the community."

As schools look for ways to help students adjust to college life, and to make their setting safer, there's one other important issues that experts debate. Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski says universities must strike a balance between strong security and an appropriate climate for learning.

"We strive to create open communities, open doors, both literally and figuratively, so that people can come together to exchange ideas, and yet you overlay that with public safety and you want to put locks on doors and create safety barriers.  It’s an incredible challenge."

He says Tech has spent tens of millions of dollars to make its campus more secure, but in the end, tragedy can strike anywhere for any reason.  All you can do is be vigilant, prepared and maintain a sense of community - an on-going challenge since every year new students and faculty arrive.