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School says its options were few despite his troubling behavior

Messages of love and remembrance filled a Virginia Tech campus memorial yesterday for the victims of Monday's massacre. (mannie garcia/afp/GETTY IMAGES)

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- During a turbulent four-month period in 2005, Seung-Hui Cho repeatedly demonstrated he was a potential threat to himself and other students, according to police, school officials, and faculty.

He harassed two female students in person and with instant messages and phone calls, police said yesterday. English teachers yanked him out of class after persistent antisocial behavior, and gave him instruction in private. And a friend told school administrators that Cho wanted to kill himself.

University police confronted Cho about the harassment complaints, and he was briefly evaluated at a local psychiatric hospital, then pronounced well enough to return to classes and campus life. He never again appeared on the radar screen of Virginia Tech counselors or administrators -- despite continued faculty complaints about Cho's behavior -- until Monday, when the 23-year-old student killed 32 people and then himself.

School authorities sought yesterday to counter increasing concerns on campus that they mismanaged Cho and failed to act on multiple signs that he might harm others. Administrators and campus police said they lacked enough evidence to expel or institutionalize Cho, and could do nothing more to prevent him from continuing at Virginia Tech after the string of incidents in 2005. The campus police chief said yesterday that police had no contact with Cho after December 2005.

However, faculty in the school's English department complained about Cho's behavior and disturbing writings to university officials into 2006, according to Carolyn Rude , who recently became English department chair.

"There were multiple instances of reports of concerns" about Cho forwarded to school officials, Rude said in an interview with the Globe. "We don't have the authority or the knowledge to do more than report. We are English teachers."

Cho's antisocial tendencies began sending up red flags to professors in September of 2005.

That semester, in poet Nikki Giovanni's creative writing class, he wrote sinister poems about death and took pictures of female students' legs under their desks in class with a cell phone. Giovanni appealed to Lucinda Roy, who then chaired the English department, to remove him from the class. After that, Roy taught him one-on-one, and the sessions so frightened her that she devised a code with her assistant to call for help in case she feared for her safety.

Roy, who also was concerned about Cho's behavior and disturbing writings when she had him in one of her classes, said she brought the concerns to campus police and various other college units. But she said authorities "hit a wall" in terms of what they could do "with a student on campus unless he'd made a very overt threat to himself or others." Cho resisted her repeated suggestion that he undergo counseling, Roy said.

Police said nothing could be done based on the professors' concerns.

"These assignments were for a creative writing course that encouraged students to be imaginative and artistic. The writings did not express any threatening intentions or allude to any criminal activity, and no criminal violation had taken place," said Wendell Flinchum, chief of police at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Then, on Nov. 27, 2005, Cho harassed a female student through phone calls and in person, campus officials said. The student called campus police but later refused to press charges. Police officers referred Cho to Virginia Tech's Office of Judicial Affairs, which took no action.

On Dec. 12, 2005, Cho sent harassing instant electronic messages to another female student, who also complained to campus police but then refused to press charges.

Flinchum yesterday said officers had no reason to believe the female students faced a threat to their well-being.

"I'm not saying they were threats. I'm saying they were annoying. That's the way the victims characterized them, as annoying messages," he said. Neither of the two female students was among the shooting victims Monday.

On the same December day as the second incident, police got a call from someone who said he knew Cho and believed that Cho was suicidal, campus officials said. The call triggered the first official action taken with Cho.

Police officers talked to Cho "at length," said Flinchum. Cho agreed to speak to a counselor at the Cook Counseling Center, the mental health facility for the 26,000-student campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Dr. Chris Flynn , the center's director, would not discuss his department's dealings with the young man. But he said that he had been prepared to take more serious measures if his staff determined other students' safety were in danger.

" If a danger was known to a mental health professional, they have a duty to act," said Flynn. "And they have a responsibility to act and they will act."

He said his department treats about 2,000 students per school year, about 2 percent of them suffering from serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Flynn said staff members would have notified authorities if they had determined Cho had violent tendencies. The center is staffed with one psychiatrist, 11 psychologists, three nurses, two counselors, and psychology interns.

"It is very difficult to predict when what someone perceives as stalking is stalking, and then how it might translate into violence later," said Flynn. "Clearly, if anyone had any warning about a violent incident people would have stepped in and acted."

Counselors at the campus center decided in December 2005 that Cho might need further help and sought a temporary detention order from a local magistrate, which Virginia law required to send him to an off-campus facility.

The magistrate signed the order after an initial evaluation by a physician found probable cause that Cho might be a danger to himself or others due to mental problems. On Dec. 13, 2005, Cho was taken to Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital in nearby Radford, Va.

Within days, Cho was back in classes after being released. St. Albans officials would not discuss Cho's case. But they said they have the power to involuntarily detain anyone viewed as a public threat.

Upon return from St. Albans, Cho faced no sanctions from Virginia Tech's disciplinary system. Students can be suspended or expelled by the school alone for academic misconduct, such as plagiarism. The school also can punish or expel them if they're found guilty by a faculty-supervised five-student panel of violating student life rules, such as hazing and drug use. Because the two female students refused to press any charges, the panel could do nothing, said campus officials.

" You have to have someone who is willing to refer the case, you know, come forward with it," said Edward Spencer , Virginia Tech's associate vice president for student affairs.

In the fall of 2006, nearly a year after Cho had been briefly hospitalized, he wrote plays full of violence and hatred that disturbed his classmates in a playwriting class. At the time, the English department was receiving training on dealing with troubled students because teachers were concerned about the problems some students would bring up in their writing or in person. That semester, one student revealed that she had been raped and a teacher accompanied her to the hospital, Rude said.

According to faculty guidelines, faculty are to contact police if they are concerned a student might be dangerous. The police then contact counseling services, she said. It's unclear what university officials did with the complaints in 2006.

"He was frightening students and frightening the teacher," said Rude. "People have always said he's quiet and he's troubled."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.