5 years after Tech, Va. colleges gauge threats
RICHMOND, Va.—Virginia's colleges and universities have quietly investigated hundreds of students, employees and others in recent years to prevent a repeat of the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, when a student gunman left a series of increasingly disturbing warning signs before killing 32 people and himself.
Monday marks the fifth anniversary of Seung-Hui Cho's deadly rampage, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. A state panel investigating the killings determined that professors, students and mental-health professionals knew about Cho's troubled behavior for years but never tied all the information together -- something officials said might have prevented the slayings.
In response to the panel's findings, the General Assembly passed a law in 2008 requiring Virginia's 15 public, four-year colleges and universities to form panels with broad powers to investigate students' academic, medical and criminal records. And their findings are largely exempt from public disclosure laws.
While the law covers only public institutions, most of Virginia's private colleges also have so-called threat assessment teams in place, according to the Virginia State Crime Commission.
Statistically, there's no way to tell if the teams have prevented specific violent acts, and officials on the teams say it would be a mistake to make such a claim. But they say they do believe those teams have helped make campuses safer.
"I can tell you we have intervened in situations that could have led to violence," said George Ginovsky, George Mason University's assistant police chief and threat assessment team co-chair. "Whether they ever would have really led to violence is pure speculation."
Team members include representatives from a school's key offices, such as law enforcement, human resources, student affairs and mental health services. They meet regularly to discuss potential concerns -- including reports of behavioral changes, threats or troubling posts on social-media websites, for example.
If the teams decide someone poses a safety threat, they could recommend suspension or refer cases to law enforcement or mental-health agencies. While officials said some students have been removed from campus, officials declined to give numbers or other details, citing the Virginia law that shields the groups' work from public dissemination.
At the University of Mary Washington, the threat assessment team meets every other week. Doug Searcy, vice president of student affairs and head of the team, said the point is not passive sharing, but activating a response.
"The point of these threat assessment teams is to share information, connect the dots, get the right people involved," Searcy said.
In Cho's case, the dots were never connected.
A shy, quiet person who entered Virginia Tech in 2003, Cho started showing extreme behavioral problems about two years before the shootings, including violent, disturbing writings that provoked serious concerns from professors, who removed him from class.
Virginia Tech police also received reports from three female students who received disturbing emails, instant messages and, in one student's case, a visit by Cho in disguise. After police ordered Cho to stay away from one of the women, Cho sent an instant message to a suitemate: "I might as well kill myself now."
Community mental-health experts then evaluated Cho, detaining him overnight at a psychiatric hospital after determining in December 2005 that he was an imminent danger to himself or others. He also underwent several screenings at the campus counseling center.
In the spring of 2006, Cho wrote a paper for a creative-writing class about a planned campus mass murder-suicide that paralleled the events of April 2007. Checks of Cho's records by a concerned college administrator several months later found "no mention of mental health issues or police reports" on Cho, according to the panel's report. He went on to buy his guns and ammunition in early 2007 in preparation for the April 16 massacre.
"The wake-up call of the Virginia Tech event to university communities has been heeded and well-followed," said Longwood University Police Chief Bob Beach, who heads his school's seven-member team. Beach said Longwood has assessed about eight to 12 potential threats over the past three years, but there hasn't been an instance in which a threat has risen to the level of actual danger.
In one case, a student said something to the effect of, "If I had my brother's gun, I'd shoot him in the head and this all would be over with," Beach said.
"Obviously you can't let that lie," Beach said. The incident ultimately was found to be a "tongue-in-cheek issue, not an intended, focused threat."
There is no state clearinghouse for statistics on threat-assessment findings. But a study by the State Crime Commission in November reported that during the 2010-11 academic year, there were 658 "persons of concern" reported, and 584 threat assessment cases opened at 25 public and private colleges and universities. Several universities declined to release details or figures because of privacy concerns.
Colleges and universities started creating threat assessment teams in the 1990s, but they weren't widely adopted until after the mass shootings in Blacksburg, said S. Daniel Carter, a Knoxville, Tenn., campus security consultant. Virginia and Illinois, where a gunman killed four people and injured 22 others before killing himself at Northern Illinois University in February 2008, are the two states that have mandated threat assessment teams, he said.
"The Virginia Tech tragedy was really the impetus for them being recognized as a key component for preventing violence on campus," Carter said. "The individual mass shooter situation is very difficult to predict, but what can be caught is escalating steps and escalating behaviors that are threatening in nature."
There's been a definite increase in the creation of campus threat assessment teams since 2007, Carter said, and most four-year colleges and universities have them. But it's unclear if any group collects those statistics. Other states likely haven't passed laws requiring them because their colleges are adopting threat assessment procedures on their own.
He also said it's important that students and others on campus know about threat assessment procedures and offer a confidential way for people to report concerns.
Virginia Tech's team has had 350 cases in the past year, but that "shouldn't be construed as, `We have 350 cases of impending violence,'" said Deputy Police Chief Gene Deisinger, the school's director of threat-management services. He came to Blacksburg in 2009 after creating a similar program at Iowa State University in 1994, and he has helped develop a training program for campus police and other officials.
While state law requires that public schools have threat assessment teams, they do have leeway in setting up how the teams operate. Tech has "an early-identification and early-intervention approach," Deisinger said.
But in 9 percent of cases of campus violence nationwide, the perpetrator has no ties to the school, Deisinger said, as in the case of Radford University student Ross Ashley. The man fatally shot Virginia Tech police officer Deriek Crouse in December, then committed suicide in a nearby parking lot. There was no known motive or connection between Ashley and Crouse.
"While (threat assessment) is a prevention and early-intervention process, it'd be absurd to suggest that every violent circumstance can be prevented," Deisinger said.
Zinie Chen Sampson can be reached on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/zinie
Associated Press writers Michael Felberbaum, Larry O'Dell and Steve Szkotak also contributed to this report.