Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Fears led university to commit gunman to mental hospital

Suzanne Goldenberg in Blacksburg, Virginia
Thursday April 19, 2007

The gunman who carried out the massacre at Virginia Tech was well known to campus authorities as a strange and deeply withdrawn individual who frightened his fellow students, and who was briefly committed to a mental hospital as a potential suicide, it emerged yesterday.

By the time Cho Seung-Hui entered the record books on Monday for killing 32 students and professors in America's deadliest mass shooting, he had a history of bizarre behaviour dating from November 2005.

The campus police became involved after two women complained of stalking by telephone and computer. Cho was also becoming a concern to the English department, which was his main field of study. That same autumn he was withdrawn from a poetry class for taking illicit mobile phone pictures of women classmates.

The stalking complaints, which did not result in charges, led the campus authorities to seek Cho's admission to a mental health hospital on December 5 2005 for his evaluation as a suicide risk.

Under Virginia law university authorities obtained a temporary detention order from a magistrate allowing his referral to an off-campus facility, the campus police chief, Wendell Filchum, told a press conference yesterday.

However, those multiple warning signs did not merit special action by the university when Edward Falco, who taught Cho in his playwright course last autumn, raised fresh concerns about the stubbornly uncommunicative student who seemed obsessed with violence.

Mr Falco discovered his colleagues were familiar with Cho. "He was known. He was known in the English department. He was known in the community," he said.

But Mr Falco was told by his department the matter was under control. "All assured me that they had done everything they knew it was appropriate to do. Given those assurances I kept him in my class under special circumstances."

The head of the English department, Carolyn Rude, maintained there were no specific warnings about Cho when she assumed her post last May. "I only knew vaguely that there had been concern about the student and concern for safety of other students," she said.

But Lucinda Roy, her predecessor, had removed Cho from a poetry class in November 2005 because his behaviour and his writing frightened fellow students, as well as his professor, Nikki Giovanni. "There was something about his anger that made me think it just wasn't someone writing. It was a deeper place where it came from," Ms Roy said. "I just thought, here is someone who doesn't have much to lose."

She notified campus counselling services, the legal department, and the dean of students about Cho. "He seemed incredibly depressed. He really needed help."

She also asked campus police to review the writing sample which had disturbed Ms Giovanni. The police were responsive, but Ms Roy said there was little they could do because Cho had not made direct threats. Instead, it was decided that Ms Roy would step in to help Cho complete the course from which he had been removed. She met him for three individual tutoring sessions, and pressed him to seek counselling. Cho did not speak much and when he did rarely raised his voice above a whisper. He kept sunglasses on indoors.

The campus authorities offered Ms Roy protection for the sessions, which she declined, but she had a colleague nearby with a pre-arranged panic signal.

It was unclear yesterday whether Cho obtained counselling, or how long he spent at the psychiatric hospital - St Albans, in Radford, Virginia. According to Ms Rude, there were no further complaints about his behaviour after the stalking episodes in 2005.

But his bizarre behaviour came to Mr Falco's attention on the first day of class. Asked to briefly introduce himself, Cho got up and walked out. Mr Falco hoped Cho had dropped out. He had not. Under campus rules Mr Falco could not remove him, so he reconciled himself to the student. "I felt that he was a strange student, that he was a troubled student, but he seemed to be making it."

In his written comments on others' work, Cho was not overtly hostile, but his own work was "adolescently violent, with a lot of high school angst and anger", Mr Falco said. One of his plays, which has been posted online, begins with an opening scene of a teenager at breakfast with his stepfather, Richard McBeef. It erupts almost instantly into violent rage, with the boy accusing the older man of killing his father and molesting him. "I hate him. Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die. Kill Dick. Richard McBeef," the boy rants. "You don't think I can kill you, Dick? You don't think I can kill you? Gotcha. Got one eye ... got the other eye."

Mr Falco said: "Periodically you get very violent writing. You get writing that is misogynistic, that is hateful. You have to deal with that. What is lack of craft, and what is a reflection of psychological problems - these are not easy to discern."

Ms Roy is worried that there could be many more deeply troubled students on US campuses. "We are getting more and more students who have very special needs. It is a powder keg. You just know that something is going to explode and every so often it does."

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