'We did the right things'

The Baltimore Sun

RICHMOND, Va. -- A day after a scathing state report criticized Virginia Tech's handling of the shooting massacre in April, Charles W. Steger, the university president, defended his administration's actions yesterday and said he had no plans to resign.

"Based on what we knew at the time, I believe we did the right things," Steger said at a news conference on the campus in Blacksburg, Va. "You have to understand how fast things were occurring."

The report, by a panel appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine, said lives might have been saved had university officials warned the campus earlier that a killer was on the loose. But Steger said officials did not do that in order to avoid panic and ensure that only accurate information was disseminated.

He rejected the report's depiction of a two-hour gap in police activities between the first shootings, when two people were killed in a dormitory, and the second, when 30 people were killed in a classroom building.

The police worked continuously through that period and their actions improved the response to the second shootings, Steger said. He said the police had learned little from the first crime scene that would have warned them that more killings were about to occur.

Steger agreed with the report's conclusions that mental health tracking on campus was deficient and that communication among agencies had broken down. But he said the university had received limited information about the mental health of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, when he arrived on campus.

"In Cho's case, no one at this university had any foreknowledge of his mental health problems that seemed dominant throughout his life before college," he said. In the end, Steger said, Cho, 23, was solely to blame for a crime Steger called "unprecedented in its cunning and murderous result."

Steger said he had not considered resigning, based partly on the support he has received from alumni, students and faculty members.

Larry Hincker, a university spokesman, said the school had to think very carefully before it adopted some of the report's recommendations, such as requiring key cards for most campus buildings, which he said would greatly restrict how students, faculty and the public interacted.

The report drew mixed reactions from families of victims, many of whom have waited for months for a full accounting of the shooting.

"I think the report is excellent," said Andrew Goddard of Richmond, whose son, Colin, was shot four times and survived. "I feared a whitewash, but it wasn't." Goddard said he did not think it was necessary for anyone to resign or take blame.

But Vincent J. Bove, a security consultant and spokesman for the families of six victims, said the relatives he represents were "infuriated" that the report did not place clear blame. "Money and lawsuits aren't the issue for them - accountability is," Bove said. Families were especially angry to learn that the university had waited so long to send campus-wide warnings, he said.

At an appearance with panel members yesterday morning in Richmond, Kaine said he was satisfied with the report's conclusions, calling them "comprehensive and thorough, objective and in many instances hard-hitting." He said he saw no point in demanding firings.

"I want to fix this problem so I can reduce the chance of anything like this ever happening again," Kaine said. "If I thought firings would be the way to do that, then that would be what I would focus on."

The report offered the most comprehensive look yet at Cho's upbringing and shed new light on his mental health problems before arriving on campus. The report says Cho's family, far from being passive in tackling his problems, played a tireless role in seeking help for him.

Struck with medical problems, including whooping cough and pneumonia, Cho was hospitalized at age 3 in Korea for heart problems, for which he was catheterized, the report said. That experience left him traumatized and uncomfortable with physical contact, according to his mother, who was interviewed by panel members.

As Cho grew older, moving to the United States at age 8, he became increasingly unwilling to speak, the report said. Later, Cho's parents began taking their son to weekly visits with a psychiatric counselor, a process that required overcoming a cultural stigma about mental health problems and taking turns leaving work early to drive him to the appointments, the report says.

Things took a turn for the worse in eighth grade as he began isolating himself and showing signs of depression. Inspired by the 1999 Columbine shootings, Cho wrote a violent essay, and a counselor at his school suggested that his parents take him for a psychiatric evaluation, which they did.

In high school, Cho received a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder that prevented him from feeling comfortable communicating in public, and he was later given medication.

But in 11th grade, Cho stopped receiving therapy. He had improved slightly, the report said, and he complained persistently to his parents that he no longer wanted to attend the weekly sessions.

In describing the anguish of Cho's family, the report said, "They will mourn, until the day they die, the deaths and injuries of those who suffered at the hands of their son."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad