The panel investigating the Virginia Tech massacre of 32 people by a student gunman released their report last night.
According to The New York Times and The Washington Post, the report criticizes the university for not identifying the extent of gunman Seung-Hui Cho's threat to himself and others, the police's decision to treat the first double homicide as a domestic and isolated incident, and the university's decision to not cancel classes after learning of the first two murders.
In a statement, Governor Tim Kaine (D-VA) addressed the many criticisms included in the report, which runs 147 pages, not counting the 14 appendices. The most trenchant criticism regarded the inability of the university and mental health professionals to share information that may have led to an intervention before Cho's murderous rampage was addressed at length by the governor.
First, there was an intense awareness within Cho’s family, counselors and the Fairfax County School system that he was troubled, had contemplated violence, and needed some fairly intense services to be able to function. The system surrounded him with those services, and he succeeded.
However, despite serious concerns about whether he would be able to continue to succeed at Virginia Tech, the university never received any information about his challenges and the strategies that had enabled him to succeed up to that point in his life.
Second, while he was at Tech, many people became aware of Cho’s difficulties – students, parents, resident assistants, teachers, administrators, the Tech Police Department, and counselors. But there was not an effective mechanism for compiling information and taking action, either to intervene in an effective way or even to contact Cho’s family.
Third, the response of the state mental health system in the one instance when it dealt with Cho suggests that there are problems concerning the way Virginia implements its mental health laws. In particular, the absence of any official follow-up to determine whether the judicial order for outpatient treatment was complied with is significant.
Fourth, the confusing nature of privacy laws and significant misunderstandings about what they cover and the circumstances where sharing information is allowed is relevant to these issues. Since violations of the law can create liability, laypeople who do not understand the law may simply default to a position that ‘we cannot legally share information.’ It is imperative that these laws be explored to give clear instruction to people working in the field about what information may be shared if doing so might keep people safe.
In a press conference for the report's release, panel member Roger L. Depue did single out the university police for praise for having an active-shooter response plan which they practiced with the local police. He said that foresight is rare across U.S. university and college campuses.
For more information on the Virginia Tech massacre and what steps universities can take to prevent that next campus massacre, see Security Management's August cover story, "Preventing the Next Campus Shooting."
For more analysis on the panel's report, see "Va. Tech Report: Police Preparedness and Response Outstanding."