In the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, age 23, killed 27 students, five professors, and then himself on April 16, 2007. At 7:15 a.m., Cho shot a man and a woman in West Ambler Johnston dormitory. He ran away before the police arrived; when the police came, they focused on the boyfriend of one of the victims as the would-be shooter. Approximately 2V2 hours later, Cho entered a classroom in Norris Hall, an engineering building, where he gunned down students in an advanced hydrology class as well as in other classrooms. When police responded to a 911 call, they found that three of the entrances to the building had been chained shut. They finally got into the building 11 minutes after Cho began his attack there, by shooting the lock out of the door to a machine shop. A student who was in one of the classrooms, Trey Perkins, told MSNBC that Cho never said a word–he simply entered the room and began firing. In addition to the fatalities, at least 15 students were wounded. Others sustained injuries as they leapt to safety from their classroom windows.
The shootings followed two weeks of bomb threats at the university, although these threats do not appear to have been the work of Cho. The university and police waited two hours after the shootings began to send the first email notification to students. This message simply warned students to be cautious and did not instruct them to stay away from the classrooms–even though Cho was still at large at the time.
The university canceled classes for the remainder of the day on Monday and for the following day. It set up a meeting place for families to reunite with their children at a local hotel, and brought in extra counselors to assist the grieving, confused, and angry students. Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine returned early from a trip to Asia and declared a state of emergency in Blacksburg, the city where the university is located.
Approximately one year after the shooting, Governor Kaine announced that a fund of $100,000 had been set up to assist the families of students killed. Each was also offered counseling and medical expenses, as well as the chance to question the governor and university officials about the shooting. Additional funds were made available to the dozens of survivors of the rampage. Families and survivors accepting the settlement had to agree to forego the right to sue the university. Almost two years later, the university re-opened the wing of Norris Hall where the shooting occurred. A ceremony celebrated the opening of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.
Cho was born in South Korea, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was eight years old. Lucinda Roy, a former Virginia Tech professor, authored a book called No Right to Remain Silent in spring 2009, in which she argued that she, and others, saw warning signs that Cho was dangerous. As co-chair of the English Department in fall 2005, Roy was told by a colleague about Cho’s disturbing writing and behavior. Classmates were afraid of Cho, who would take pictures of them with his cell phone camera from under the desks. Roy began to tutor Cho privately, and found him to be generally unresponsive. Roy said she tried to alert those on campus who might help the clearly troubled student, contacting four different departments including the university police and counseling center, but no one offered Cho the help he needed. They maintained that no one could coerce a student to get counseling; thus, until Cho came in voluntarily or actually threatened himself or someone else overtly, there was nothing they could do.
When Cho threatened suicide, he did get some help from a psychiatric facility off campus. Once he was deemed no longer a threat, however, he was released. Cho contacted the school’s mental health counseling center later that year, but records from these sessions remained missing until July 2009, when they were found at the home of a former university counseling official, Dr. Robert C. Miller. It is still unclear why Miller took the records home more than a year before Cho’s massacre. Parents of children who were killed or wounded in the rampage were outraged at this finding, suggesting that it indicates further lapses on the part of the university and the police, and even that it hints at deception. Roy said that Cho went to the center multiple times, but never received a thorough examination. Because Cho was older than the age of 21, his parents were never contacted about any of these matters.
A state panel that was convened after the shooting determined that the university had misinterpreted privacy laws. Further, the panel determined that the school did not notify students fast enough once the shooting began. Many victims’ parents have expressed a belief that their children would still be alive if the university had responded to Cho’s obvious distress earlier. Since the shootings, Virginia Tech has hired new counselors and created a risk assessment team to identify and work with troubled students.
Prior to Cho’s rampage, the most deadly university shooting had occurred in 1966 at the University of Texas. In that attack, Charles Whitman killed 16 people from the observation deck of a 28-floor clock tower before he was shot by police.
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