Schooled by a Sick Tragedy
Finding the answers to what sent Seung Hui Cho on the shooting rampage that felled 33 people, including himself, will take many months, or even longer. But it took only a few hours for Virginia Tech University and law enforcement officials to come under a barrage of questions and accusations about their actions last Monday.
"I felt angry yesterday," junior Ross Pinkett said the next day. "That there was a shooting on campus and nobody took more dramatic measures to shut down our school-it's pretty incomprehensible."
S. Daniel Carter, head of the nonprofit campus crime watchdog group Security on Campus Inc., traveled to Blacksburg, Va., looking for answers. He found himself wondering why the university didn't notify students faster. "When there is a shooter at large on a campus, there has to be a notification," he said.
The brunt of criticism surrounds the timeline of the university's security response. Why, for instance, did it take two hours and 11 minutes after the first 911 call from West Ambler Johnston Hall to inform students that a shooting had occurred on campus? Why did it take an additional 24 minutes to send a second E-mail saying a "gunman is on the loose"-and that one five minutes after a 911 call about the second round of shootings? Why was the order to lock down the university not issued immediately after the first shooting and not until a half-hour following the second 911 call?
Beyond the timeline, critics question the university authorities' defense: that the shooter in the first incident appeared to be the boyfriend of the first victim, Emily Hilscher, and to have left the campus, so they put their resources into finding him, upon hearing he owned guns.
"They had to pursue the lead. There is no question," Carter says. "Where we take issue is that they considered the whole case at this point along the lines of the assumption they made."
No suspicion. Virginia Tech, starting from the first press conferences, defended its actions. Said University President Charles Steger, "We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur." And John Marshall, Virginia secretary of public safety, said university officials "made the right decisions based on the best information that they had."
A Virginia state review ordered by Gov. Tim Kaine, led by former Virginia State Police Superintendent Gerald Massengill and including former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, will look into many of those questions. Campus security experts raise a few more for investigators to ponder. Why, asks Michael Dorn of Safe Havens International, can't university professors lock classroom doors like teachers at many elementary and secondary schools? What were Virginia Tech's written procedures for an active shooter situation, asks Ann Franke, a college security consultant, and were they repeatedly practiced by campus police? Massengill, for his part, says: "We're not going out there to second-guess anyone. We are going out there to find some lessons to learn." And just like the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, there will most likely be many.
With Angie C. Marek
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.