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School officials looking ahead

MASSACRE AT VIRGINIA TECH: AFTERMATH

They say they want to get the university `back on its feet,' and insist they had no grounds to monitor Cho.

April 20, 2007|David Zucchino and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

BLACKSBURG, VA. — Weary with grief and struggling to explain their failure to monitor Seung-hui Cho upon his release from a mental hospital 16 months ago, the leaders of Virginia Tech sought Thursday to begin the healing process for their shattered university.

His voice cracking and his eyes glistening, the man who has become the public face of the school -- an earnest, silver-haired administrator named Larry Hincker -- said the time had come for his beloved university to move forward after four days of almost unbearable pain.

"We cannot let this horror define Virginia Tech," Hincker said, stepping up to a bank of microphones at a campus inn just hours after helping fellow officials parry blistering questions from reporters about how the school dealt with a troubled killer-to-be.

"We are going to do whatever we can to try to get this place back on its feet again, while we remember what took place and do what we can to prevent anything like that happening again in the United States," he said, drawing sustained applause from the same journalists who had bombarded him with questions.

Hincker's emotional appeal came on a day when Virginia's police superintendent stood at the same microphones to criticize NBC News and other media outlets for airing and publishing graphic, profane and disturbing videos and photographs of Cho. Col. Steven Flaherty said the publicity only served to draw ill-deserved attention to a gunman the families of the victims wanted to forget.

"We're rather disappointed in the editorial decision to broadcast these disturbing images," Flaherty said in a rich Southern drawl. He told the victims' families: "I'm sorry that you all were exposed to these images."

Second-guessing

At a contentious news conference hours earlier, school officials acknowledged that no one from the university had monitored Cho upon his release from a mental facility 16 months ago. They said the courts were responsible for ensuring that Cho followed up with required counseling after he was deemed a danger to himself and possibly others.

Court and psychiatric authorities are not required to notify school officials when a student is released from a mental facility, they said. And after Cho's release in December 2005, Virginia Tech officials said, the school received no complaints that he was violent or dangerous.

The fact that Cho had been detained for a 24-hour period of observation at a nearby psychiatric hospital and then turned loose has angered many here. The university has spent the last two days trying to explain why he was released in the first place, and why the courts, the healthcare system and the university all failed to track his progress afterward.

On Monday morning, Cho, 23, a senior majoring in English, killed 32 fellow students and teachers in a pair of shootings at the campus, then shot himself to death.

"He had broken no law that we know of," Dr. Chris Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center on campus, said of Cho. "The mental health professionals were there to assess his safety, not particularly the safety of others. So there is no necessity perhaps that they would notify everybody."

Cho, a South Korean immigrant, was clearly disturbed. He seldom socialized at school, rarely spoke, and horrified his creative writing class with bizarre plays featuring violent episodes. The videos he recorded before his death show an angry, seething and delusional young man.

In December 2005, Cho was detained by campus police acting on complaints from two female students that he was stalking them. He was held at Carilion Saint Albans, a private mental health facility in nearby Christiansburg, Va.

At that time, Cho was judged to be an "imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness." But his insight and judgment were deemed normal. He was released with a recommendation that he seek professional counseling. He apparently never did.

School officials said Thursday that Cho's release meant that a mental health professional had decided that he was no longer a threat to himself or others.

"When they are released into the community, there is no necessary notification of the university," Flynn said. "The university is not part of the mental health system or the judiciary system, and we would not be the providers of mandatory counseling in this instance."

He added: "The judgments that are made at the [psychiatric] facility are not our judgments." And he said that mental health anti-discrimination laws required the university to allow Cho to return to class once it was determined that he was no longer a danger.

"The events we're talking about occurred 16 months ago," Flynn said. "We had not had any reports from women, from other students, about his behavior."

A campus police officer picked up Cho and escorted him for treatment after the stalking complaints; university police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum said his office notified the university administration that day.

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