Questions, lessonsin campus massacre

A Times Editorial
Published September 24, 2007

A review panel's comprehensive report on last spring's massacre at the Virginia Tech University campus is disturbing reading. It details the chilling time line of events on April 16, when student Seung-Hui Cho methodically killed 32 people before killing himself. But it also raises serious questions that deserve broader attention regarding the timely sharing of information on college campuses to protect all students.

Some of those issues focus on better coordination and organization during a crisis. A two-hour delay between the killing of two students in a dormitory and a campuswide e-mail warning sent about the time Cho entered the engineering building to continue his rampage was the most obvious problem. Other universities also can learn from Virginia Tech's failure to plan for an emergency response to a mass shooting, the inability of its police officers to send prompt electronic emergency alerts and its cumbersome bureaucracy that slowed reaction time.

The tougher questions involve more appropriately balancing privacy concerns with public safety regarding the sharing of information about the mental health issues of university students who could pose a serious threat to others. Various institutions and individuals were aware of Cho's apparent mental instability for years, but no one in authority at Virginia Tech knew the entire picture necessary to take decisive action to help him and potentially prevent a tremendous loss of life.

As the report outlines, Cho's isolation and mental health issues were apparent from an early age. When he was in the eighth grade, his middle school teachers noted his suicidal, homicidal thinking and writings in which he declared he wanted to "repeat Columbine." In high school, his parents diligently sought mental health counseling for their son as teachers made special accommodations, such as allowing private oral tests. Yet "neither Cho nor his high school revealed that he had been receiving special education services as an emotionally disabled student" to Virginia Tech officials before he was admitted to the university. And the report notes that federal law prevents universities from asking about an applicant's disabilities before they are admitted.

But after students are admitted, it would seem reasonable for universities to be provided some access to the mental health records of students with serious issues who are determined to be a threat to themselves or other students. Education and immunization records commonly travel with the student. As the report says, "Information critical to public safety should not stay behind as a person moves from school to school."

Once on the Virginia Tech campus, Cho had confrontations with students and professors as well as contacts with police that raised flags about his stability. Yet Cho failed to receive the mental health services he needed, and his parents were unaware of the extent of his difficulties in part because of an overly broad interpretation of state and federal privacy laws. The application of these laws in a college setting should be reviewed, and there should be more sharing of information about students who pose a serious safety threat.

The balance between privacy and public safety in these situations is a delicate one, but it needs to be revisited in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy. Better sharing of information could help potentially dangerous students get the attention they need and better protect their classmates.