Colleges look for lessons in troubled case
Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui had exhibited warning signs, such as disturbing written compositions.
In retrospect, the warning signs seem clear.Skip to next paragraph
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Cho Seung-Hui shared disturbing compositions in his writing classes, including a one-act play about a 13-year-old boy who tries to choke his stepfather with a cereal bar. He was a loner who rarely spoke, even to roommates, and who reportedly set a fire in a dorm room and stalked women.
But if such red flags are easy to spot, especially in hindsight, it's much harder to know at the time how to deal with them. And it's impossible to predict which individuals exhibiting such signs might pick up a gun and give violent expression to them, as Mr. Cho did Monday when he fatally shot 32 people before killing himself.
"If you wait until somebody wants to kill a lot of classmates, it's too late for counseling," notes Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston. "The problem is that those warning signs apply to far too many people. There are a lot of false positives."
Professor Levin suggests casting a broad net in terms of offering help and counseling services to such students. Others note that it's important to educate teachers, students, and administrators about the sorts of behavior they should look out for, as well as what to do when they see them.
In Cho's case, some classmates did in fact convey their concerns to administrators and police. Lucinda Roy, an English professor who taught Cho's poetry workshop, was so disturbed by his writing that she alerted campus police, counseling services, and other officials, The New York Times reported Wednesday. She also got permission to tutor Cho outside of class and was so concerned he might be dangerous that she set up a code with her assistant: If she said the name of a certain deceased professor, her assistant would call for help.
Noted US poet Nikki Giovanni told CNN that she had insisted Cho be removed from her class in 2005 because he had intimidated other students by photographing them and by writing obscene, violent poetry.
Ian McFarlane, a former classmate of Cho's, wrote in an AOL news blog that he was disturbed by Cho's writing but didn't know how to address it. "There isn't, to my knowledge, any system set up that lets people say, 'Hey! This guy has some issues! Maybe you should look into this guy!' "
Virginia Tech's shooting now has college counseling centers across the country reevaluating the measures they have in place to avert similar tragedies – and perhaps to provide the kind of system Mr. McFarlane says he wanted – even as they try to reassure students.
"It's really important to think, 'How would we manage if we have a student like this on our campus?' " says Joshua Miller, a Smith College professor who specializes in the psychology of trauma and crisis response. "How would we identify that person? If another student was concerned about them, how would we respond? What would be the various approaches that we could use in a way that's not overreacting and instilling fear in everybody?"
The signs to look for have, in fact, become fairly standard. While an FBI report on threat assessments for school shooters cautioned that there's no single profile of a shooter, it included many signs for fellow students and teachers to be alert to, including shared threats or violent fantasies, lack of empathy, low tolerance for frustration, and extreme alienation.