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Statement by President Charles W. Steger in response to Virginia Tech Review Panel report


BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 30, 2007 – Let me begin by saying that this university, notwithstanding the joy and exhilaration that comes from the start of the new semester and academic year, is still traumatized to an extent and continues to grieve over the tragedy of April 16. On our campus, 32 people were murdered and at least 27 injured by a profoundly sick young man. Moreover, he was a member of our own community, which magnifies the violation we all feel.

For virtually all of us within the Virginia Tech family, our hearts will never lose the ache we've felt since that horrible day.

We are trying hard to support those most in need. Nineteen injured students have returned to the Virginia Tech campus to continue their education here and we are doing everything possible to make that transition back to the classroom as easy as it can be.

In addition, the office of Recovery and Support was created to facilitate more effective and on-going two-way communication between the university and the families of the victims.

I believe that wonderful opportunities exist for Virginia Tech to collaborate with these families in some incredibly meaningful programming to commemorate the spirit and generosity of our fallen Hokies.

I am here to speak today to the findings and recommendations of the Virginia Tech Review Panel that was ably led by Colonel Massengill. I want to thank Governor Kaine, Col. Massengill, and all the members of the panel who gave so much time and thought to this difficult topic. They have provided a valuable and necessary public service.

Governor Kaine's leadership from the early moments of April 16 and his encouragement and support ever since have been inspirational to our university, to the commonwealth, and beyond.

I would also like to acknowledge the work of hundreds of people within the university who worked on our own reviews and/or worked with the panel in sharing information and the thousands faculty, staff and students who stepped up on April 16 and in the weeks that followed. And finally, I once again want to thank the thousands of people who flocked to our aid on April 16 or expressed their support.

We asked for this review. We asked that it be direct and objective. It is extraordinarily comprehensive.

It is painful to hear the blunt and, in some cases, critical findings. Yet, it was necessary. Necessary for those who have lost something more precious than anything in the world their loved ones. Necessary for those of us who interacted with the deeply disturbed student. And necessary for those of us with the responsibility for finding ways to implement actions to seek to prevent any such tragedy happening ever again.

We are just now beginning to digest the findings and recommendations. We are distributing the report to campus leadership and the board of visitors. It is already clear that many of its recommendations for future actions are consistent with our own released last week. ( Read an overview of the internal reports released Aug. 22. )

We must evaluate which actions we can implement immediately, which might have secondary implications that require further study, which are the province and responsibility of groups outside the university, which require changes in law, and which will require additional resources.

I can't review everything in the report, but let me note just a few key points.

As noted in our own reports on the "interface" between units, as we move forward we need to be more aggressive in identifying and assisting students at risk. The Panel report indicates the same.

Whether Cho should have ever been in a large college -- or any college -- is a legitimate question. When people did reach out and try to help, he rebuffed the system. He hid his homicidal tendencies from mental health professionals throughout his life.

Although, hindsight now provides us with the signs or indications within the university, he clearly kept from the university the extent of his troubles and prior mental health history. Ours is a system that asks for students to help us help them. Mental health colleagues work tirelessly to help individuals with ailments cope with college, but it is a cooperative effort.

Some say the 'system' -- the continuum of support from childhood through college -- failed this student. Some aspects "the system" worked -- broadly speaking. It simply wasn't asked to do enough. We didn't ask it do to enough and for some aspects outside Virginia Tech the same is true. For example, the report notes that "professional participants and family stakeholders are uniformly frustrated with almost every aspect of the civil commitment process in Virginia."

We believe that actions that we announced last week that we refer to as "Expanding Capacity in the System" will greatly improve our ability to identify problems.

I refer to the three major recommendations. I lift them up now because they are key to much of what we have heard from the panel.

  • Refining and expanding the Care Team, a key student affairs group that identifies and responds to students at risk (among other responsibilities).
  • Creating a Threat Assessment Team charged with examining the most complex cases of distressed students and empowering it to act quickly, when necessary.
  • Expanding Case Management Capacity by adding case managers to the Dean of Students office and Cook Counseling Center to improve follow-up with students and to improve information flow through appropriate units about students at risk.

Virtually all college students are legal adults. Over the past 30 years, in-loco-parentis has been challenged, largely dismantled, and almost legislated out of existence. Yet, we are seeing in this report and other public discussion a growing recognition that families do not and should not surrender responsibility for a student's ongoing well-being. There are many recommendations in this report relative to communication and privacy laws that will bolster involvement of support groups, including families.

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. Colleges need feedback loops in order to identify, assess, and help students at risk. We need some way of understanding a student's life before college, if there are aspects that would prevent that student from success or, in the extreme, could create problems for others.

Indeed, the information about his earlier mental health problems and special education programs would have been invaluable not only in a general sense in assisting him as a student, but when he had his one encounter with the public mental health system in 2005.

We agree that we need to break down the perceived barriers to privacy within our own organization and with organizations with which we interact. It is still a grey area and some of the recommendations will require a better understanding of existing laws, clarification of existing laws, and changes in laws which will engender much discussion.

In the end, we acknowledge the 'connecting the dots' scenarios and will do everything in our power to end potential problems stemming from poor or non-existent information exchange.

I can assure you that Virginia Tech will not be a bystander in the political process. We will be forceful advocates for bridging the legislative gap between individual privacy rights and the good of larger society.

The Panel report says the police agencies and rescue groups did an outstanding job on this day of the tragedy. I agree. Their heroic work in Norris undoubtedly saved lives.

Based on feedback given to me by other law enforcement leaders and in the report itself, our police followed standard protocols for a homicide investigation and securing the campus on the morning when the first two shootings were discovered. They immediately secured the crime scene and notified residents in the immediate area. With the information gleaned in only minutes, they developed legitimate leads and quickly followed them. Based on the crime scene evidence, they did just what they should have done.

The report notes that "The notion that there was a 2-hour gap ... is a misconception. There was continuous action and deliberations from the first event until the second and they made a material difference in the results of the second event."

I am not aware of anything they learned that would have indicated a mass murder was imminent. Indeed, the report notes that there was no similar event in U.S. history. The report notes, "Based on past history, the probability of more shootings following a dormitory slaying was very low. The panel researched reports of multiple shootings on campuses for the past 40 years, and no scenario was found in which the first murder was followed by a second elsewhere on campus."

This crime was unprecedented in its cunning and murderous result.

Yet, it happened here. We now own it forever.

We respect and commend the panel for the 'what might have happened scenarios.' They are illustrative and useful for future actions. Nobody can say for certain what would have happened if different decisions were made. However, to say that something could have been prevented is not to say it would have been. Moreover, it is entirely possible that this tragedy, horrific as it is, could have been worse.

Yet, their recommendations are sound and will be helpful.

As the Panel report notes, Cho is ultimately responsible for the carnage on our campus. Irrespective of suggested changes in action, we recognize as does the panel, that no plausible scenario was made for how this horror could have been prevented once he began that morning. We recognize that actions leading back several years could lead us to numerous "what-if" scenarios.

All of these recommendations will be valuable to higher education.

We believe that our people acted quickly and to the best of their abilities in the early hours of April 16 based on what we knew at the time. Still, we acknowledge the findings and recommendations of the panel. The distance in time and extraordinarily thorough work of the panel provides the hindsight and necessary clarity to objectively review our actions that were not available to us in the heat of the moment. And the report also reinforces the bravery, selflessness, and integrity with which the community faced this horrific challenge.

It is my belief that our new notification systems will facilitate the speed by which we can employ university notifications in emergency situations. But there are pitfalls and possibly unanticipated consequences by the community if in receipt of sketchy information or lacking a recommended course of action.

Still, we recognize there is now an expectation for rapid communication of some information, even if not explicit. In some instances, this may be better than no information. Indeed, this may be the new protocol for American municipalities and cities as well.

Nothing we can do now will bring back those precious lives lost. My heart goes out to the families who lost family members. We will make changes throughout our university and related systems and changes in attitudes to ensure their memories are honored and remembered. As one panel member said, this report is a beginning of the path to reduce the risk of future tragedies.

Our university is strong. We have tremendous pride in who we are. There is an indomitable Hokie Spirit. And each day we cope better and better. But, I know that I speak for my colleagues when I say ... I will hurt forever.



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