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School officials looking ahead

Times Staff Writers

Weary with grief and struggling to explain their failure to monitor Seung-hui Cho upon his release from a mental hospital 16 months ago, the leaders of Virginia Tech sought Thursday to begin the healing process for their shattered university.

His voice cracking and his eyes glistening, the man who has become the public face of the school -- an earnest, silver-haired administrator named Larry Hincker -- said the time had come for his beloved university to move forward after four days of almost unbearable pain.

“We cannot let this horror define Virginia Tech,” Hincker said, stepping up to a bank of microphones at a campus inn just hours after helping fellow officials parry blistering questions from reporters about how the school dealt with a troubled killer-to-be.

“We are going to do whatever we can to try to get this place back on its feet again, while we remember what took place and do what we can to prevent anything like that happening again in the United States,” he said, drawing sustained applause from the same journalists who had bombarded him with questions.

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Hincker’s emotional appeal came on a day when Virginia’s police superintendent stood at the same microphones to criticize NBC News and other media outlets for airing and publishing graphic, profane and disturbing videos and photographs of Cho. Col. Steven Flaherty said the publicity only served to draw ill-deserved attention to a gunman the families of the victims wanted to forget.

“We’re rather disappointed in the editorial decision to broadcast these disturbing images,” Flaherty said in a rich Southern drawl. He told the victims’ families: “I’m sorry that you all were exposed to these images.”

Second-guessing

At a contentious news conference hours earlier, school officials acknowledged that no one from the university had monitored Cho upon his release from a mental facility 16 months ago. They said the courts were responsible for ensuring that Cho followed up with required counseling after he was deemed a danger to himself and possibly others.

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Court and psychiatric authorities are not required to notify school officials when a student is released from a mental facility, they said. And after Cho’s release in December 2005, Virginia Tech officials said, the school received no complaints that he was violent or dangerous.

The fact that Cho had been detained for a 24-hour period of observation at a nearby psychiatric hospital and then turned loose has angered many here. The university has spent the last two days trying to explain why he was released in the first place, and why the courts, the healthcare system and the university all failed to track his progress afterward.

On Monday morning, Cho, 23, a senior majoring in English, killed 32 fellow students and teachers in a pair of shootings at the campus, then shot himself to death.

“He had broken no law that we know of,” Dr. Chris Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center on campus, said of Cho. “The mental health professionals were there to assess his safety, not particularly the safety of others. So there is no necessity perhaps that they would notify everybody.”

Cho, a South Korean immigrant, was clearly disturbed. He seldom socialized at school, rarely spoke, and horrified his creative writing class with bizarre plays featuring violent episodes. The videos he recorded before his death show an angry, seething and delusional young man.

In December 2005, Cho was detained by campus police acting on complaints from two female students that he was stalking them. He was held at Carilion Saint Albans, a private mental health facility in nearby Christiansburg, Va.

At that time, Cho was judged to be an “imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness.” But his insight and judgment were deemed normal. He was released with a recommendation that he seek professional counseling. He apparently never did.

School officials said Thursday that Cho’s release meant that a mental health professional had decided that he was no longer a threat to himself or others.

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“When they are released into the community, there is no necessary notification of the university,” Flynn said. “The university is not part of the mental health system or the judiciary system, and we would not be the providers of mandatory counseling in this instance.”

He added: “The judgments that are made at the [psychiatric] facility are not our judgments.” And he said that mental health anti-discrimination laws required the university to allow Cho to return to class once it was determined that he was no longer a danger.

“The events we’re talking about occurred 16 months ago,” Flynn said. “We had not had any reports from women, from other students, about his behavior.”

A campus police officer picked up Cho and escorted him for treatment after the stalking complaints; university police Chief Wendell R. Flinchum said his office notified the university administration that day.

“It was not a criminal matter,” Flinchum said. “We had taken it as far as we could take it.... After that, I do not know what happened to the case.”

Ed Spencer, associate vice president for student affairs, said Cho’s roommate and suitemates also did not complain to university officials about “any violence or danger or whatever” regarding Cho. Since the shootings, however, they have told eerie stories about his sullen demeanor and erratic behavior.

Some of the suitemates have said they complained to the school about Cho’s scribblings on dormitory walls. Regarding those complaints, Spencer said: “There’s a big difference between writing on a wall, being strange, different, weird and quiet -- and being dangerous.”

Spencer added: “I know that we followed all of our policies correctly in the past and we acted on information we had at the time

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‘It’s just too painful’

Just three weeks before the shooting, Virginia enacted a bill directing state public universities and colleges to do more to identify and assist students inclined toward suicide. Under the law, schools cannot expel students for suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Nevertheless, many students and parents remained angry that more was not done to track and stop Cho, especially because his videotapes and rambling notes suggest he had been planning the assaults for some time.

Tracy Littlejohn, a cousin of shooting victim Erin N. Peterson, a freshman from Centreville, Va., said the family was upset. “We’re frustrated, obviously, that things went that way and that we lost Erin, but it’s just too painful to go there,” Littlejohn said. “It’s not how we’re grieving.”

Flaherty said videos and other items Cho mailed to NBC between the two shootings were of marginal value to the investigation. “We already had most all of this information,” he said. “The package simply confirmed what we already knew in many, many cases.”

He criticized NBC and other media outlets for what he said was sensationalizing the videos and photos of Cho.

Also on Thursday, police obtained search warrants for a Dell laptop computer and a Verizon cellphone belonging to freshman Emily J. Hilscher, who was killed in the first shooting at the West Ambler Johnston dormitory. Authorities are attempting to learn whether Cho, with his history of stalking women by e-mail and phone calls, had contacted her.

Police were preparing Thursday to close down their on-scene investigation into the shootings, and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, appointed a panel to review the police and university response to the deaths. He said retired Virginia state police superintendent Col. Gerald Massengill would chair the commission, which also includes former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

University officials announced that they would conduct their own internal review of the tragedy, as required under school policy. And officials said that all students killed in the shootings would receive honorary degrees in the fields they were studying.

Somber reading

With classes closed until Monday and most students leaving for a long weekend to work through their grief, Hincker read aloud in a somber, elegiac tone the names of seven of those killed. All across campus, students and staff members -- many in maroon Hokie caps and sweatshirts -- watched TV monitors in silence. The names brought to 30 the number of victims positively identified by the state medical examiner, from Ross A. Alameddine to Nicole White.

Hincker read slowly, allowing each name to hang in the air, followed by a brief description of the victim’s time at Virginia Tech. On the paper in his hand, there were helpful phonetic spellings so that he could properly pronounce the names of fellow Hokies like Jocelyne Couture-Nowak (JOS-EL-LIN COO-TOORE-NO-WAHK).

Hincker confessed that he was “totally exhausted,” and the strained timbre of his voice confirmed that. He had slept just six or seven hours since Sunday night, he said.

“This has been the most trying ordeal you can imagine,” he said. “We grieve for our families and friends. We cannot understand how something like this happened. Our university will have to find a way to move forward.”

Looking small and alone behind the tangled jumble of microphones, his spectacles reflecting the harsh glare of the TV lights, Hincker paused and mentioned the Virginia Tech motto: “Invent the Future.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com

richard.serrano@latimes.com

Zucchino reported from Blacksburg and Serrano from Washington. Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Virginia contributed to this report.


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