WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Virginia Tech University officials should have been quicker to notify students and faculty about two killings on campus hours before the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history, according to a state report on Thursday.
Criticizing the university’s response, the panel convened by Gov. Tim Kaine said lives could have been saved if officials had issued an alert after student Seung-Hui Cho shot his first two victims in a dormitory on the morning of April 16.
Two hours later, Cho turned up on the other side of campus, where he killed 30 other students and teachers, methodically gunning them down in a classroom building.
Kaine called the report fair and said the next step would be to implement changes to reduce risk of future violence on campuses in Virginia and across the country.
The report, released on the governor’s Web site, said university police concluded prematurely that their initial lead in the first shootings was good. Police had pursued another suspect they believed was no longer on the campus.
“The VTPD (Virginia Tech Police Department) erred in not requesting ... a campus-wide notification that two persons had been killed and that all students and staff should be cautious and alert,” said the report by the eight-member panel, which included former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said he believed police responded quickly and “to the best of their abilities.”
“Still, we acknowledge the findings and recommendations of the panel,” Steger told reporters. “Nobody can say for certain what would have happened if different decisions were made. However, to say that something could have been prevented is certainly not to say that it would have been.”
The state report said Virginia Tech officials missed numerous indications of Cho’s problems because they misinterpreted federal privacy laws as forbidding any exchange of a student’s mental health information.
The report found campus police knew of Cho’s history of bizarre behavior and his stay at a mental health facility but the information never reached university officials working with troubled students.
“No one knew all the information and no one connected the dots,” the report said.
Despite school officials’ beliefs, federal privacy laws would have allowed for the communication of some information about his problems to police, the report said.
“The system failed for lack of resources, incorrect interpretation of privacy laws, and passivity,” it said.
Kaine said important information, like Cho’s mental health problems, needs to be shared properly.
“When a student has as significant a history as this, that history shouldn’t just be put into a drawer and locked and not follow the student onto a campus with the university having no knowledge about the student’s background,” he said.
The report also faulted Virginia’s mental health laws and a lack of resources in the state’s mental health system.
It recommended the state’s law be changed to clearly require information on persons such as Cho — who have been ordered into out-patient treatment but not committed to an institution — be entered into a federal database for background checks on would-be gun purchasers.
Although Cho’s motives remained unclear, he had fantasies about the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in which two students killed 13 people.
Kaine said he would see which of the changes proposed in the report that he can implement by executive order, then will work with legislative bodies to help push for broader changes.
Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings in Washington