Friday, August 21, 2009


Virginia Governor Kaine invited the families of the Virginia Tech victims to submit corrections to the Review Panel Report. The following are the corrections submitted by Mr. and Mrs. Michael Pohle. The Pohle’s lost their son, Michael, on April 16, 2007. Both the letter and the corrections are being published with the permission of Mr. and Mrs. Pohle.

August 16, 2009

Dear Governor Kaine,

This is my family’s response to your request for corrections pertaining to the Virginia Tech Panel Report published in August of 2007.

We believe that in addition to identifying specific “factual errors”, it is equally important to look at how factual errors connect to each other to get a bigger picture.
What follows is based on data that was available to the panel, TriData, and others as early as May of 2007, as well as statements contained in the panel report itself. Admittedly, our information was limited compared to what was presented to the panel, however, a picture still emerges.

Overall, my family believes;

1. That the timeline of events, and actions being taken, on the morning of April 16, 2007 following the WAJ shooting and before Norris Hall is built upon a false starting point that is not supported by fact.

2. That the 7:30-8:00 AM timeline entry was not simply a mistake.

3. That there were systemic failures of leadership relative to priority, readiness, and execution relative to campus safety, and those gaps were not adequately addressed by the panel report.

4. That there is more information concerning what went on before April 16th that has not yet been revealed.

5. That the investigation must be re-opened and include other expertise to critically examine all information available.

The delays associated with revealing the complete truth about April 16, 2007 that we have endured have gone on for far too long. We, respectfully, request that action be taken immediately rather than after your term is over.

One of the other families has created what we believe to be a relevant name for what has gone on these past 2 years. That name is “Hokiegate”.

Thank you,

Michael & Teresa Pohle

A. An Erroneous Timeline of Events – Why?

(Chap III, p 25) “7:30–8:00 a.m. A friend of Hilscher’s arrives at WAJ to join her for the walk to chemistry class. She is questioned by detectives and explains that on Monday mornings Hilscher’s boyfriend would drop her off and go back to Radford University where he was a student. She tells police that the boyfriend is an avid gun user and practices using the gun. This leads the police to seek him as a ‘person of interest’ and potential suspect.”

The foregoing passage presents a false timeline. According to Chief Flinchum, the interview actually began at 8:16AM, and resulted in a person of interest not being identified until, allegedly, 8:40-8:45AM. Hence, no one could have identified the Person of Interest (POI) until after this interview concluded. This latter time point connects well with the timing of the private e-mails to Richmond describing what was going on, and not to release anything.

1. With its expertise, knowledge, and supporting resources, how could the panel fail to establish an accurate timeline for the events after the shootings at WAJ? In any case, its acceptance of an erroneous timeline laid the foundation for subsequent false statements in the report.

2. On May 21, 2007, Chief Flinchum specifically told the panel that the interview leading to the discovery of the POI did not start until 8:16 AM. Inexplicably, the panel disregarded this highly significant information, although other elements of his input were included in the timeline. (Chief Flinchum’s presentation is attached.) Both the source of this false entry, and the reason(s) behind why this was done must be explained.

3. On May 21, 2007, Vice Provost of Student Affairs David Ford also spoke to the panel. Whereas Vice Provost Ford’s input receives almost two full pages (Chap VII, pp 81-82) in the report, only portions of Chief Flinchum’s input to the panel were included.

4. Although the panel had Chief Flinchum’s testimony about the factual timeline for three months prior to the publication of the report, it has never, before or since, made any effort to disclose or to account for this error in establishing a timeline.

5. Inexplicably, the panel failed to interview either the key witness (H. Haugh) or the cited Person of Interest (K. Thornhill).

6. If the panel had spoken with H. Haugh, she would have confirmed Chief Flinchum’s statement to the panel on May 21, 2007, of the interview’s true timeline.

(Chap VII, p 80) “In an interview with President Steger, members of the panel were told that the police reports to the Policy Group first described a possible ‘murder–suicide’ and then a ‘domestic dispute,’ and that the police had identified a suspect. After the area parking lots had been searched, the police reported the suspect probably had left the campus.”

7. Given that Chief Flinchum did not speak to President Steger until 8:10 AM, the panel did not convene until 8:25 AM, and the POI remained unidentified until, allegedly, 8:40-8:45 AM, the highlighted portion of the foregoing statement could be true only if the incorrect 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline were true.

8. When the families met with Chief Flinchum in October 2008 at an event also attended by state law-enforcement and representatives of the Governor’s office, Chief Flinchum stated that the panel-report entry for the timeline was wrong.

9. At this same meeting, Chief Flinchum pointed out that the card-swipe records showing that Ms. Hilscher’s roommate (aka her friend) entered WAJ at 8:14 AM confirm that the 8:16 AM starting time for the interview is factually correct.

10. Also, again at this same meeting, Chief Flinchum stated that the police knew that Karl Thornhill (POI) had attended his class at Radford University that morning. His attendance there is behavior seemingly inconsistent with that of a bloody-footed murderer, and receives no mention at all in the panel report.

11. The panel report shows other time points that either card swipes or computer records unequivocally substantiate. Nothing, however, substantiates the 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline that the report endorses – nothing.

12. Numerous actions that the police and the Policy Group took, as set down in the panel report, have their basis in the erroneous 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline. For example:

a. (Chap III, p 26): “8:16 – 9:24 a.m. “Officers search for Hilscher’s boyfriend.” (This is a false/misleading statement that qualifies as true only if the 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline is true.)

b. (Chap III, p 26): “Chief Flinchum provides updated information via phone to the [VT] Policy Group regarding progress made in the investigation. He informs them of a possible suspect, who is probably off campus.” This is a false/misleading statement that qualifies as true only if the 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline is true. Only Chief Flinchum and President Steger spoke at 8:10 AM; neither spoke to the Policy Group during that call. There was no suspect, or person of interest identified when the Policy Group meeting began at 8:25AM.

c. (Chap VII, p 80): “Both the VTPD and the BPD immediately put their emergency response teams (ERTs) (i.e., SWAT teams) on alert and staged them at locations from which they could respond rapidly to the campus or the city. They also had police on campus looking for the gunman while they pursued the boyfriend.” The underlined portion of the last sentence is false because the SWAT team was alerted at 8:15 AM (Chap III, p26) and the police had not yet identified the boyfriend as a POI until, allegedly, 8:40-8:45 AM. Subsequently, the statement could be true only if the 7:30 – 8:00 AM timeline was accurate, which it is not.

13. The panel never explored or explained the causal relationship between the 9:24 AM stop of Mr. Thornhill and the issuing of the first vague message to the campus at 9:26 AM. A gun-powder test takes more than two minutes, and the two-minute interval between these two events would strike few unbiased observers as coincidental.

Boyfriend Questioning (Chap VII, p 85): “At 9:30 a.m., the boyfriend of Emily Hilscher was stopped in his pickup truck on a road. He was cooperative and shocked to hear that his girlfriend has just been killed.”

14. This statement conflicts with the entry on p 26 of Chap III, which states that the police stopped Mr. Thornhill at 9:24 AM.

a. How could this POI have known that someone had murdered his girlfriend? What did he know that the panel failed to find out by omitting to interview him? We do know that Heather Haugh and Karl Thornhill (POI) were friends, and were told that she sent a text message to him following her interview that his girlfriend had been shot.

b. The phrase “on a road” avoids acknowledging the fact that the road was Prices Fork Road, and that Prices Fork Road traverses the Virginia Tech campus. Why would he have gone to class at Radford and then return to Virginia Tech if he was attempting to flee?

B. Leadership Failures – What Is a University’s First Priority?
On the morning of April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech had at least two procedures in place that were important, legally obligatory, and relevant to what the administration must do in an emergency. The first was their Emergency Response Plan (ERP); the second was their Timely Warning Procedure (TWP), available in the document “Campus Safety: A Shared Responsibility,” published in 2005 in compliance with the Federal Clery Act. State and federal law require the implementation of the tenets of both these procedures. The panel report does not contain any mention of whether these procedures, as written, were followed. Additionally, there were no recommendations or conclusions stating that schools MUST follow what they say they will do.

This was completely within the panel’s scope as directed by Executive Order 53 (Chap I, item #6, p6)

Emergency Response Plan

1. I submit that on 4/16/07 Virginia Tech’s administration did not follow the ERP as written. Indeed, had VT leadership made it a priority after the Morva Incident in August 2006 to revise its ERP to include what they would do if a shooter appears on campus, and update it to align with state and federal guidelines, its Policy Group would have been far better prepared vs. spending precious time discussing the same Morva incident. (Chap VII, p 80). Despite this opportunity, neglecting their leadership duty, they did nothing to improve the procedures in their own ERP. Further, the panel makes no mention of, nor conclusion about, the priority, commitment, and responsibility that university leadership has concerning safety.

2. The panel report states, “The VTPD has authority under the Emergency Response Plan and its interpretation in practice to request that an emergency message be sent, but as related in Chapter II, the police did not have the capability to send a message themselves” (Chap II, p 19).

a. First, what does the first part of that statement mean? Either VT followed the ERP as written, or it did not. Although no university can anticipate every possibility, its leadership team should have updated the ERP and implemented new procedures, using the best information available. Although no such action occurred at Virginia Tech, the panel does not indict VT’s leadership for this failure. Recommendation II-2 (Chap II, p 19) sets forth common knowledge for any university leadership in the Commonwealth, but declines to rebuke the VT leadership for its systemic failures relative to campus safety.

b. Second, even though the VTPD had the “authority” under the ERP as written, they were never provided the tools to comply with this, outdated, plan. The panel report never specifically addresses this leadership failure. Why not?

c. Third, the report provides no reference or cites any document to suggest that VT leadership trained its employees to understand what its accepted ERP “practice” is in such situations. Why not?

Campus Safety: A Shared Responsibility – The Federal Clery Act

1. The only reference to the Federal Clery Act in the panel report appears in (Chap II, p 19, II-5). It consists of a simple recommendation: “Universities and colleges must comply with the Clery Act, which requires timely public warnings of imminent danger. Our legislators should clearly and specifically define the term “timely” in the federal law.”

a. In 2005, Virginia Tech published a document titled “Campus Safety: A Shared Responsibility.” Publishing such a document is a requirement of the Federal Clery Act and it was in effect on April 16, 2007.

b. The following statements are contained in this document.

i. (Page 1) “Virginia Tech has designed policies and regulations in order to create a safer and more harmonious environment for the members of its community. All campus community members and visitors of the university are required to obey these regulations. These policies not only reflect the university’s high standards of conduct, but also local, state and federal laws. Observed and enforced, they create a high degree of safety for the university community.”

ii. (Page 6) “At times it may be necessary for "timely warnings" to be issued to the university community. If a crime(s) occur and notification is necessary to warn the University of a potential dangerous situation then the Virginia Tech Police Department should be notified. The police department will then prepare a release and the information will be disseminated to all students, faculty and staff and to the local community.”

c. As opposed to the language in the ERP, which the panel report cites as “cumbersome, untimely, and problematic”, etc. (Chap 7, p 80), both the requirement and the process for issuing a timely warning appear in this document in clear and concise terms.

2. Nothing in the panel report suggests that VT’s leadership ever conducted any discussions about executing this timely-warning procedure, or that the Chief of Police, the VTPD, or the Policy Group ever took any action to execute the procedure as directed. Nothing in the report alludes to this requirement. This absence of comment constitutes a serious omission, especially given the unambiguous nature of the notification procedure.

a. At a minimum, Chief Flinchum, other VTPD officers on the scene, and possibly Dr. Ed Spencer knew that they had no suspect, no person of interest, no weapon, no witnesses, and bloody footprints leaving the scene as early as 7:40 AMThey knew all this considerably before Chief Flinchum’s first phone conversation with President Steger at 8:10 AM.

b. During that call at 8:10 AM, Chief Flinchum did not share all the facts of the situation with Dr. Steger.

c.Chief Flinchum failed to notify Dr. Steger and the Policy Group that he had deployed his SWAT team, staging it at the Blacksburg police department at 8:15AM (Chap III, p 26). At that time, the police still had no suspect and had still not identified any person of interest.

d. Chief Flinchum failed to inform Dr. Steger and the Policy Group that police were on campus looking for the gunman while they were also deploying SWAT teams (Chap VII, p 80). At this time, the police still had no suspect, nor had they yet identified a person of interest.

e. Based on the forgoing information, this situation met the conditions for issuing a warning by the Chief of Police per the timely-warning procedure. The comment from the panel relative to defining the word “timely” is an insult, especially given that private e-mails were sent to people in the Gov. office beginning at 8:45AM advising of a shooter on the loose, as well as the timing for the second warning message which was sent within 5 minutes after the Administration was informed of what was happening in Norris Hall.

f. Contrary to the procedures in the Emergency Response Plan, “Campus Safety: A Shared Responsibility” gave Chief Flinchum the responsibility and the authority to issue a necessary warning without any requirement for pre-authorization from any member of the administration.

g. As was the case with the Emergency Response Plan, the VTPD was never equipped to comply with what was required. This was a failure of Leadership.

h.The panel report made no mention of this Clery procedure, nor did it point out that this procedure and the Emergency Response Plan were in conflict with each other.

3. In our opinion, these leadership failures should include the VT Board of Visitors for neglecting to provide oversight and direction to the administration about establishing campus safety as a top priority, such as:

a. Instituting robust, up-to-date, and consistent safety procedures that function as living documents.

b. Ensuring that the university law enforcement can execute approved procedures as written, and the administration is committed to maintaining safety as the highest priority.

c. Acknowledging that the BOV must set the priority, measurement criteria, and accountability for the University relative to safety, and provide the needed oversight to ensure this is done. This is required as per Article I, Section 5, of their By-Laws, as well as applicable statute(s).

Article I

Section 5. Responsibilities of the Board

As public trustees the members of the Board have the overall responsibility and authority, subject to constitutional and statutory limitations, for the continuing operation and development of the institution as a state land-grant university, and for the evolving policies within which it must function. Much of this authority necessarily is delegated to the President, who serves as agent of the Board and chief executive officer of the University.

The most important responsibility of the Board is the trustee obligation to insure that the University's educational and research programs effectively meet the evolving needs of Virginia's citizens to the fullest extent possible within the statutory mission of the institution. Similarly in a national context, the Board's oversight responsibilities extend to federally mandated programs.

The formulation of the basic policies under which every aspect of the University's operations are carried out, as well as the implementation of those policies, consequently are subject to the Board's review, possible modification, and ultimate approval. However it is at the policy level, rather than the operational level, that the Board's responsibilities are paramount.

By statute, the Board is charged with the care, preservation, and improvement of university property and with the protection and safety of students, faculty, and staff on the property. The Board also is charged with regulating the government and discipline of students and, in respect to the government of the University, may make such regulations as the Board deems expedient, not contrary to law. The Board has authority over the roads and highways within the University campus and may prohibit entrance to the property of undesirable and disorderly persons or eject such persons from the property (§23-122, Code of Virginia, as amended).

C. Leadership Failures – Cook Counseling Center?

1. The recent news about the discovery of Cho’s “misplaced” medical records, and the panel not interviewing Dr. Miller, is very significant. This is regardless of what is actually contained in the files. What is missing from the report was any discussion about how medical records could be missing in the first place, whether the problem was systemic of record keeping deficiencies at Cook, and what had been done, or not done, about correcting that deficiency. How is it possible that 9 months following Cho’s last reported contact with the Center that his records, as well as others, could still be missing given strict state and federal laws?

a. (Chap 3, p28) “September 6–12 [2006] Professor Lisa Norris, another of Cho’s writing professors, alerts the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Mary Ann Lewis, about him, but the dean finds “no mention of mental health issues or police reports” on Cho.”

b. The panel report contains no discussion, or recommendations, concerning the serious nature of failing to maintain records, or what actions did VT leadership take to resolve that situation. Consistent with the deficiencies discussed in section B, I submit this is yet another example of failed leadership and oversight.

c. The families received an e-mail on June 18, 2007 from Dr. Steger concerning Cho’s Medical records. As you will see from the attached, there is no indication of any records being lost or missing, yet, we now know that was the case even before April 16, 2007.

Michael & Teresa Pohle

Friday, August 7, 2009



I believe the report is badly damaged because of the serious flaws I shall list in this analysis. While corrections can be made, I believe that the original report will go down in history as a poorly researched, poorly analyzed, and poorly written document. The report does not address the problems central to the causes behind the shooting and shies away from making the tough recommendations need to get at the heart of the problem and prevent future shootings on school grounds. The reader is left with the impression that the incentive to produce a candid and objective report was low.

Parts of the report can be salvaged, but it must be understood that many of the report’s flaws stem from decisions made before a word of it was written. In the first place, the idea of a state-sponsored panel investigating a state institution is a conflict of interest. That conflict of interest probably explains why the report does not hold anyone accountable for anything. Furthermore, from the outset, the credibility of the Review Panel and their report was undermined because of the failure of the review panel to have subpoena power and the ability to have people interviewed under oath. The inaccurate timeline and Cho’s missing medical records (which have now turned up) do serious damage to the document’s credibility. Cathy Read’s and Mike Pohle’s corrections to that timeline are stunning examples of inaccuracies. If the original report is based on an inaccurate timeline, then the analytical narrative flowing from that timeline is, by definition, flawed and requires a major rewrite.

The systemic flaws in the panel itself play out in the final report. I would say there are eight major failings:

First, the report did not address issues that needed to be addressed such as identifying mistakes in judgment and the individuals who should be held accountable for their actions or inactions. Indeed, the report is an amazing exercise in avoiding accountability and legal liability.

Second, the panel itself which investigated the tragedy and wrote the report is, as mentioned above, a prime example of conflict of interest. A state panel examining the behavior of state employees and a state organization cannot be completely objective. To even suggest that the panel was completely objective is sheer folly—particularly when the state was so well represented and not one member of the victims’ families was a panel member. Instead, there is the state-selected family representative and spokesperson on the panel—again, a conflict of interest that is hardly conducive to impartiality.

Third, several key players did not fully cooperate with the review panel. I find that lack of cooperation disheartening and puzzling. Specifically, the Virginia State Police, the ATF, and the gun dealers “declined to provide the panel with copies of the applications” Seung Hui Cho completed when he bought the weapons that would eventually kill over thirty innocent people. The report notes that “the Virginia State Police … did describe the contents of Chou’s gun purchase applications to members of the panel and its staff.” The state police’s willingness to “describe” is a limp attempt to explain their failure to fully cooperate and provide the panel with documents related to the shootings is a major flaw in the report—it is inexcusable.

Fourth, the report repeatedly falls back on passive voice sentences that obscure who did what and when; who know what and when; and who acted and didn’t act. The authors of the report carefully chose their words in order not to identify any individual by name.

Fifth, the panel was impeded in its work by the FOIA rules that did not allow more than two members to meet together or speak by phone without it being considered a public meeting. This is bureaucracy at its worst. The report needs to be more specific in detailing the problems this bureaucratic obstacle presented.
Sixth, the report sugar-coats glaring errors and problems: for example, on page 10 the report talks about its findings and recommendations being of two different kinds: “What was done well,” and “what could have been done better.” The report should talk about people in positions of authority failing to do their jobs—“could have been done better” is backing away from holding individuals and institutions accountable for their actions. Until accountability becomes part of the analysis and remedial steps are part of the recommendations, these tragedies are doomed to continue.

Seventh, the report appears to make excuses for the decision of the university’s Policy Group not to put out a campus-wide alert following the discovery of the first two bodies. But the previous August, the university had put out an alert that a convict named William Morva had escaped from a nearby prison and killed a law enforcement officer and a guard. The alert indicated that the murderer was on the loose and could be on campus. The university set its own standard in August of 2006 by issuing that alert, but then went on to violate that standard in April 2007. Lives could have been saved had that alert gone out. The report skirts around this critical point.

Eight, the panel should not have been chaired by a former head of the state police. This is another example of a conflict of interest. The result appears to have been a downplaying of the mistakes made by the police on the day of the shooting—and probably mistakes they made in not placing Cho’s name on the list of those people prohibited from buying guns.

In connection with systemic flaw eight, the report says that the police may have made an error in reaching the premature conclusion that their initial lead (following the discovery of the first two shooting victims) was a good one and that the person of interest was probably not on campus. May have made an error? They did make a very serious error by jumping to a premature conclusion and giving the wrong impression to school officials. This error should never be glossed over.

In sum, the report fails to do its job in critical areas; it is bland, and raises no real red flags. The report is the equivalent of reading a book with no thesis. The recommendations indicate this or that “should” be done. The “shoulds” relate to such things as analyzing, training, complying with this or that act, police being members of panels, and so on and so forth. Yes, these “shoulds” need to be done. But, nowhere does the report say that individuals must be held accountable for their actions or inactions; that organizations and individuals must be held accountable when they break their own standards and it results in over 30 lives being lost.

The report is impressive in size and unimpressive in content. It falls short of what it needed to do: make clear that everyone in a position of responsibility must be held to the highest standards of safety, and that failure to meet those standards will result in stiff penalties. Instead, the reader is left wandering from page to page in an effort to tie ends together and make his or her own conclusions.


There are structural flaws in the report centering on the Key Findings and Recommendations. Most people who look at a report this size will only read those two parts. Professional writers are taught to put one or both of these sections at the beginning of the chapters or the report itself because it is a well-known principle among profession writers that the Key Findings and Recommendations are the meat. By placing them at the end, and by watering them down, the writers are weakening the significance of the Key Findings and Recommendations. Tri Data Corporation employs professional writers who know this. Who would benefit from non-specific conclusions? The state of Virginia. Who hired Tri Data? The state of Virginia.

If you go through and just read the Findings and Recommendations you more often than not get broad, watered-down generalizations and lack of specificity. The net result is the Findings and Recommendations do not to accurately reflect the content of the report.


I have selected some sections that typify errors found throughout the report. Let’s take a look at some specific examples: A major concern of mine is the apparent selection of words in the report to down play failings and mistakes. For example, the topic sentence on page 18 in the paragraph in the middle of page needs to be replaced:

Original Sentence:

“Shootings at universities are rare events, and average of 16 a year across 4,000 institutions.”

Reason for replacing:

To correct the report’s downplaying of the seriousness of the threat and to be factually correct. Site: The Journal of College and University Law, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Notre Dame Law School, Professor Helen de Haven, “The Elephant in the Ivory Tower: Rampages in Higher Education and the Case for Institutional Liability,” —the citation for the article is 35 JC&UL 503, 2009.

Replacement Sentence:

“Shootings at universities are becoming more and more frequent and now average 16 a year across 4,000 institutions. Even before the rampage at Virginia Tech, a growing body of legal opinion held that the nation’s colleges and universities have a legal and moral responsibility to protect students, faculty and staff.”

Another example is found on page 52—here, The Key Findings need to be rewritten to accurately reflect the magnitude of the school’s failings. These failings are documented on pages 46 through 52:

Original Sentence:

“The lack of information sharing among academic, administrative, and public safety entities at Virginia Tech and the students who had raised concerns about Cho, contributed to the failure to see the big picture.”

Reason for Replacing:

Vague language, inaccurate reflection of the magnitude of the failings and over use of platitudes such as “big picture.

Replacement Sentence:

The numerous failings of Virginia Tech to respond to warning signs that Cho was a serous threat to himself and others should not, and cannot, be glossed over. Members of the school administration and campus police failed to heed the warnings and take the initiative to head-off what became the nation’s worst school shooting. Overly strict, and at times incorrect, interpretations of federal and state privacy laws combined with bureaucratic ineptitude to make the shooting rampage possible

There are also discrepancies in logic and reasoning that need to be reconciled. For example on page 43 the reader will no doubt be confused over what constitutes a threat. Left hand column, first full paragraph, third sentence through the end of the paragraph reads: “She (Dr. Giovanni) contacted the head of the English Department, Dr. Roy, about Cho and warned that if he were not removed from her class, she would resign. He was not just a difficult student, she related, he was not working at all. Dr. Giovanni was offered security, but declined saying she did not want him back in class period. She saw him once on campus after that and he just stared at the ground.” Problem: If a professor is threatening to resign because she feels threatened, then Frances Keene, Judicial Affairs director, needs to give a better explanation of why Cho’s threatening behavior was not actionable under the abusive conduct-threats of the UPSL.

All of page 43 is confusing and is intellectual mumbo-jumbo—it may have been intentionally written that way to hide the shortcomings and failures of the school to act.


The report’s excessive use of passive voice sentences is, I believe, intentional and meant to obscure. Passive voice sentences are the preferred sentences of members of the legal profession because they allow for greater court room interpretation and argumentation. In an historical document such as this, passive voice sentences should not be used, unless the writer has no other choice.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples. Look at page 43 and how the passive voice is intended to hide who knew what: “However, it is known that the university did not contact the family to ascertain the veracity of home town follow-up for counseling and medication management.” Known by whom? Was the individual or department responsible for this failure ever questioned?

Lucinda Roy, in her book “No Right to Remain Silent,” gives an excellent example of passive voice sentences obscuring information.

When referring to Vice Provost of Student Affairs David Ford’s statement to the panel on May 21, 2007, she writes, “As Ford revealed in his prepared statement, the president and the Policy Group were advised by the police that a suspect was being tracked—slain student Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend.

“Information continued to be received through frequent telephone conversations with Virginia Tech police on the scene. The Policy Group was informed that the residence hall was being secured by Virginia Tech police, and students within the hall were notified and asked to remain in their rooms for their safety. We were further informed that the room containing the gunshot victims was immediately secured for evidence collection, and Virginia Tech police began questioning hall residents and identifying potential witnesses. In the preliminary stages of the investigation, it appeared to be an isolated incident, possibly domestic in nature.” (Pages 81and 82 of the Review Panel Report)

In commenting on the above, she writes, “It’s difficult to know why this last assumption was made, though there is little doubt that the term ‘domestic violence’ has connotations which can lead people to assume that the violence has somehow been contained with the domestic sphere and is therefore less likely to be visited upon those outside it.”

She then adds, “When the passive voice is used in sentence construction it is hard to pin down who the subject is. In the first sentence of the above quote, for example, we would normally say “So-and-so continued to receive information,” but instead we have “Information continued to be received,” which makes it hard to know who was actually receiving it. Although this description begins as what appears to be a first-person, eyewitness narrative, it seems to dissolve into an account of an event viewed at a considerable distance. The phrase “The Policy Group was informed,” for example, begs the question of who did the informing. It seems by the end of the paragraph as though everyone is receiving all the information at the same time, but given how chaotic the situation must have been, this seems somewhat unlikely. Usually teachers of writing try to dissuade students from using the passive voice construction because it tends to result in accounts that lack specificity and removes a subject from his or her own action, as it does in this case.” The Tri Data Corporation specializes in report writing—they knew exactly what they were doing. My hunch is they were either following instructions, or did not want to be too specific and alienate the state of Virginia, a state that might hire them again.


While you are on pages 81-82 of the report checking Roy’s quote, look at the section on page 82 entitled “Decision Not To Cancel Classes or Lock Down:”

“… Most police chiefs consulted in this review believe that a lockdown was not feasible.” This statement is clearly intended to make excuses for a bad decision not to act. My question is how many police chiefs were asked, how many said the school should be locked down. In my talks with campus security representatives from XX colleges and universities in XX states, 100% said the school should have been locked down. The sentence also runs counter to the school’s own past practices—the Morva case is the most noteworthy, and the school didn’t even believe the killer was on the campus, yet they locked down.

On the next page (83) the excuses continue: “In the Morva incident, when the school was closed, it took over an hour and half for traffic to clear despite trying to state the evacuation.” An hour and a half is a small price to pay to save 30 lives. Sometimes you simply cannot hide dumb.


Please turn to pages 63-64 and look at: “Law enforcement agencies must disclose certain information to anyone who requests it. They must disclose basic information about felony crimes: the date, location, general description of the crime, and name of the investigating officer. Law enforcement agencies also have to release the name and address of anyone arrested and charged with any type of crime. All records about non-criminal incidents are available upon request. When they disclose non-criminal incident records, law enforcement agencies must withhold personally-identifying information such as names, addresses, and social security numbers.”
. . .
“Most of the detailed information about criminal activity is contained in law enforcement investigative files. Under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep these records confidential. The law also gives agencies the discretion to release the records. However, law enforcement agencies across the state typically have a policy against disclosing such records.”

Many actions may be legal, such as withholding vital information in the nation’s worst school shooting, but to do so is morally and ethically repugnant. The panel should have made that point. Furthermore, the police, in order to remove any suspicion that they did not do their job in connection with Cho’s purchase of weapons, should have willingly released all documents.


I concentrated a lot of my efforts on this chapter (pages 71-76) because it is so important and is a colossal disappointment. Perhaps nowhere else in the report is it as evident as it is on these pages that the panel members did not want to address critically sensitive issues in this report.

The opening paragraph is nothing less than pablum:

Page 71—“In investigating the role firearms played in the events of April 16, 2007, the panel encountered strong feelings and heated debate from the public. The panel’s investigation focused on tow areas: Cho’s purchase of firearms and ammunition, and campus policies toward firearms. The panel recognized the deep divisions in American society regarding the ready availability of rapid fire weapons and high capacity magazines, but this issue was beyond the scope of this review.” This borders on stating the obvious; how does it help? This paragraph should be dropped.

The chapter is filled with inconsistencies and contradictions:

Page 71—“Cho was not legally authorized to purchase his firearms, but was easily able to do so. Gun purchasers in Virginia must qualify to buy a firearm under both federal and state law. Federal law disqualified Cho from purchasing or possessing a firearm. The federal Gun Control Act, originally passed in 1968, prohibits gun purchases by anyone who has ‘been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.’ Federal regulations interpreting the act define ‘adjudicated as a mental defective’ as ‘(a) determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that a person, as a result of … mental illness…(i)s a danger to himself or to others.’ Cho was found to be a danger to himself by a special justice of the Montgomery County General District Court on December 14, 2005. Therefore, under federal law, Cho could not purchase a firearm.”

“The legal status of Cho’s gun purchase under Virginia law is less clear. Like federal law, Virginia law also prohibits persons who have been adjudged incompetent or committed to mental institutions from purchasing firearms. However, Virginia law defines the terms differently. It defines incompetency by referring to the section of Virginia Code for declaring a person incapable of caring for himself or herself. It does not specify that a person who had been found to be a danger to self or others is ‘incompetent.’ Because he had not been declared unable to care for himself, it does not appear that Cho was disqualified under this provision of Virginia law.” The report should have done a better job of reconciling Cho’s legal status to buy a gun. First the report says “under federal law, Cho could not have purchased firearms.” Then it implies that there are exceptions under Virginia law. When you read the following, perhaps the reason for the obfuscation is clearer.

Page 72—“This uncertainty in Virginia law carries over into the system for conducting a firearms background check. In general, nationally, before purchasing a gun from a dealer a person must go through a background check. A government agency runs the name of the potential buyer through the databases of people who are disqualified from purchasing guns. If the potential purchaser is in the databases, the transaction is stopped. If not, the dealer is instructed to proceed with the sale. The agency performing the check varies by state. Some states rely on the federal government to conduct the checks. In yet other states, such as Virginia, the state conducts the check of both federal and state databases. In Virginia the task is given to the state police.” It would appear that there is a motive for the obfuscation; in Virginia the state police ensure that the name is on the list of those prohibited from buying guns. Did the police not do their job? The report never even attempts to address that point.

Page 72—“In Virginia, the Central Criminal Records Exchange (CCRE), a division of the state police is tasked with gathering criminal records and other court information that is used for the background checks. Information on mental health commitments orders ‘for involuntary admission to a facility’ is supposed to be sent to the CCRE by the court clerk (was this done?) who must send all copies of the orders along with a copy of form SP 237 that provides basic information about the person who is the subject of the court order. (was this done?) As currently drafted, the law only requires a clerk to certify a form and does not specify who should complete the form. Because of the lack of clarity in some jurisdictions (which jurisdictions—the one where Cho bought his firearms?) do not send the information unless they receive a completed form. Recommendations to improve this aspect of the law were given in Chapter IV.”

Page 73—“The state police did not permit the panel to view copies of the forms in their investigation but indicated that Cho answered “no” to this question (have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective (which includes having been adjudicated incompetent to manage your own affairs) or have you ever been committed to a mental institution?) on both forms. It is impossible to know whether Cho understood the proper response was “yes” and whether his answers were mistakes or deliberate falsifications. In any event, the fact remains that Cho, a person disqualified from purchasing firearms, was readily able to obtain them.” Again, the reader will be confused, Cho was disqualified to purchase firearms, but he was readily able to obtain them.

Page 74—Now the reader is told, “Federal law prohibited Cho from purchasing ammunition.”

Page 74—“Virginia Tech has one of the tougher policy constraints of possessing guns on campus among schools in Virginia.” (Yes, but how does that policy compare with schools in other states?)

Page 75—The last paragraph before the Key Findings appears to be an intentional inclusion to downplay the threat of guns on campus. Drop the paragraph:

“The panel heard a presentation from Dr. Jerald Kay, the chair of the committee on college mental health of the American Psychiatric Association about the large percentage of college students who binge drink each year (about 44 percent) (Was Cho a binge drinker? How does this fit into the equation?), and the surprisingly large number of student who claim they thought about suicide (10 percent) (OK, tie this into Cho’s mental condition). College years are full of academic stress and social stress. (The panel brought in the chair of the committee on college mental health of the American Psychiatric Association to state the obvious?) The probability of dying from a school shooting on campus is smaller than the probability of dying from auto accidents, falls, or alcohol and drug overdoes.” (This sentence has a particularly unsavory flavor—it appears to be an intentional effort to downplay the threat of increasing gun violence on our campuses.) After reading this paragraph, you are left wondering, this cannot be all Dr. Kay said, but if this is all he said of note, what a waste of time and money.

Page 75—The Key Findings are weak and clearly represent the timidity of the panel when confronting a politically sensitive issue—gun ownership and guns right. Indeed, the Key Findings are so weak as to be meaningless.

Page 75—The topic sentence, first paragraph of Key Findings is another example where strong editing is needed.

Original Sentence:

Cho was able to purchase guns and ammunition from two registered gun dealers with no problem, despite his mental history.

Reason for Replacing:

The Recommendations should include a recommendation that the governor issue an executive order requiring the state police and gun dealers to turn their documentation over to the panel for review.

Replacement Sentence:

Under federal law, Cho could not purchase a firearm or ammunition, yet despite his mental history he was able to do so from two registered gun dealers with no problem. The refusal of the state police, the ATF, and the gun dealers to give the panel access to copies of the forms Cho filled out to purchase the weapons was a major impediment to the panel’s work. This refusal, while legal, is morally and ethically questionable

Page 75—The second paragraph of the Key Findings simply states the obvious, again an indication of the panel’s timidity and lack of dedication to tackling difficult issues.

Original Sentences:

Cho was able to kill 31 people including himself at Norris Hall in about 10 minutes with the semiautomatic handguns at his disposal. Having the ammunition in large capacity magazines facilitated his killing spree.

Reason for Replacing:

It simply restates the obvious and adds nothing to the findings.

Replacement Sentence:

Cho’s ability to kill 33 people, including himself, is a clear indication of a systemic problem that permeates Virginia’s legal and law enforcement system when it comes to keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill

Page 75—The third and final paragraph of the Key Findings needs to be completely rewritten:

Original Sentences:

There is confusion on the part of universities as to what their rights are for setting policy regarding guns on campus.

Reasons for Replacing:

It does not address Virginia Tech specifically, and is in fact fart too general in every respect.

Replacement Sentence:

Virginia Tech has one of the tougher policy constraints among Virginia schools concerning possessing guns on campus, yet this did not prevent the killings on April 16, 2007. Moreover, there is confusion on the part of universities in Virginia as to what their rights are for setting policy regarding guns on campus. The panel finds this confusion to be a major weakness in improving campus safety. Moreover, the panel finds that no matter what the policies are, if organizations responsible for keeping guns out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or others, do not do their job, campus security is seriously undermined. This is evident by the failure to have Cho’s name on the list prohibiting him from purchasing weapons.

Now, let’s look at the Recommendations on page 76. By definition, the reader will assume that recommendation number one is the most important and deals specifically with the Virginia Tech tragedy. Instead, the recommendation is a broad generalization of what should be done at the federal level on background checks. (Was the panel’s primary charter to make recommendations at the federal level? That’s news to me.) It reads:

VI-1 All States should report information necessary to conduct federal background checks on gun purchases. There should be federal incentive to ensure compliance. This should apply to states whose requirements are different from federal law. States should become fully compliant with federal law that disqualifies persons from purchasing or possessing firearms who have been found by a court or other lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others as a result of mental illness. Reporting of such information should include not just those who are disqualified because they have been found to be dangerous, but all other categories of disqualification as well. In a society divided on many gun control issues laws that specify who is prohibited from owning a firearm stand as examples of broad agreement and should be enforced. (Note, I do not disagree with the point that is being made, but the recommendations should have gone from the specific—Virginia Tech and the state of Virginia, to the broader—the federal level.)

Recommendation number two should have been the first recommendation. Indeed, recommendations two through six do address Virginia-specific issues related to the shooting. Some of the recommendations contained in numbers VI-2 though VI-6 may have been implemented, but that notwithstanding, I would change the reading of recommendation two to the following:

VI-2 The Virginia General Assembly should immediately adopt legislation requiring background checks for all firearms sales including those at gun shows. To ensure that these background checks are thorough and done promptly, Virginia should adopt stiff penalties for guns sold without a background check and later used in a crime. In an age of sophisticated information technology, it should not be too difficult for anyone, including private sellers to contact the Virginia Firearms Transaction Program for a background check that usually only takes a few minutes. The program already processes transactions made by registered dealers at gun shows. The practice should be expanded to all sales.

(Recommendation VI-2 currently reads:

VI-2 Virginia should require background checks for all firearms sales, including those at gun shows. In an age of widespread information technology, it should not be too difficult for anyone, including private sellers, to contact the Virginia Firearms Transaction Program for a background check that usually only takes minutes before transferring a firearm. The program already processes transactions made by registered dealers at gun shows. The practice should be expanded to all sales. Virginia should also provide an enhanced penalty for guns sold without a background check and later used in a crime.)

I would change recommendation VI-3 to read:

VI-3 Anyone found to be a danger to themselves or others by a court-ordered review must (I have changed should to must) be entered in the Central Criminal Records Exchange database regardless of whether they voluntarily agreed to treatment. Some people examined for a mental illness and found to be a potential thread to themselves or others are given the choice of agreeing to mental treatment voluntarily to avoid being ordered by the courts to be treated involuntarily. If they agree to voluntarily seek treatment, noting is placed in the Central Criminal Records and they are free to purchase guns. This policy should be changed, and even if a person voluntarily seeks treatment, he or she should be added to the list of those who may not buy guns. (If you remember, one of the problems surrounding Cho and the Cook Counseling Center rested on the fact that he had to voluntarily seek help. The panel missed the opportunity to draw the parallel with Cho and to make the point that the mentally ill may not be in a position to do anything “voluntarily.”) Some highly respected people knowledgeable about the interaction of mentally ill people with the mental health system are strongly opposed to requiring voluntary treatment to be entered on the record and be sent to a state database. The objection of these mental health professionals pales when you consider the fact that the two school shootings in Virginia were carried out by individuals who had sought mental health treatment and still bought guns. It is not logical to allow someone found to be dangerous to be able to purchase a firearm.

(Recommendation VI-3 currently reads:

VI-3 Anyone found to be a danger to themselves or others by a court-ordered review should be entered in the Central Criminal Records Exchange database regardless of whether they voluntarily agreed to treatment. Some people examined for mental illness and found to be potential threat to themselves or others are given the choice of agreeing to mental treatment voluntarily to avoid being ordered by the courts to be treated involuntarily. That does not appear on their records, and they are free to purchase guns. Some highly respected people knowledgeable about the interaction of mentally ill people with the mental health system are strongly opposed to requiring voluntary treatment to be entered on the record and be sent to a state database. Their concern is that it might reduce the incentive to seek treatment voluntarily, which has many advantages to individuals (e.g., less time in hospital, less stigma, less cost) and to the legal land medical personnel involved (e.g., less time, less paper work, less cost). However, there still are powerful incentives to take the voluntary path, such as a shorter stay in a hospital and not having a record of mandatory treatment. It does not seem logical to the panel to allow someone found to be dangerous to be able to purchase a firearm.)

I would strengthen recommendation VI-4 so that it reads:

VI-4—The existing attorney general’s opinion regarding the authority of universities and colleges to ban guns on campus needs to be clarified immediately. The Virginia attorney general and the state legislature need to move quickly to codify the right of all colleges and universities to ban weapons on school grounds. Currently the state’s institutions have interpreted the law in different ways—that needs to change. The Commonwealth’s attorney general has provided some guidance to universities, but additional clarity is need from the attorney general and the state legislature regarding guns on university and college grounds.

(Recommendation VI-4 currently reads:

VI-4 The existing attorney general’s opinion regarding the authority of universities and colleges to ban guns on campus should be clarified immediately. The universities in Virginia have received or developed various interpretations of the law. The Commonwealth’s attorney general has provided some guidance to universities, but additional clarity is needed from the attorney general or from state legislation regarding guns at universities and colleges.)

I would keep recommendation VI-5 as is (it is on the mark):

VI-5—The Virginia General Assembly should adopt legislation in the 2008 session clearly establishing the right of every institution of higher education in the Commonwealth to regulate the possession of firearms on campus if it so desires. The panel recommends that guns be banned on campus grounds and in buildings unless mandated by law.

I would change recommendation VI-6 to say the following:

VI-6—Universities and colleges should make clear in their literature, as well as in their orientation programs, what their policy is regarding weapons on campus—and what the penalties are for disregarding those policies. Again, the panel recommends that guns be banned on campus grounds and in buildings unless mandated by law. Prospective students and their parents, as well as university staff, should know the policy related to concealed weapons are, and the severe penalties for breaking those policies.
(Recommendation VI-6 currently reads:

Universities and colleges should make clear in their literature what their policy is regarding weapons on campus. Prospective students and their parents, as well as university staff, should know the policy related to concealed weapons so they can decide whether they prefer an armed or arms-free learning environment.)



Time and time again, the report soft-pedals the mistakes made by the police. Look at page 79: “… the police may have made an error in reaching a premature conclusion that their initial lead was a good one, or at least in conveying that impression to the Virginia Tech administration.” The word “may” needs to be dropped—it was a mistake; no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.”

And again on page 80: “The police did not tell the Policy Group that there was a chance the gunman was loose on campus or advise the university of any immediate action that should be taken such as canceling classes or closing the university. Also, the police did not give any direction as to an emergency message to be sent to the students. … Not until 9:25 a.m. did the police have a representative sitting with the Policy Group, a police captain.” This is a clear example of stifling bureaucracy preventing prompt response to an emergency. The police had the authority, but no means to send a message.

Page 81—“Even with the police conveying the impression to campus authorities that the probable perpetrator of the dormitory killings had left campus and with the recent past history of the ‘panic’ caused by the alert 9 months earlier, the university Policy Group still made a questionable (should read: made a wrong) decision. They sent out a carefully worded alert an hour and half after they heard that there was a double homicide, which was now more than two hours after the event.” Once again the school displayed bureaucratic timidity and 30 people lost their lives. That point needs to be made.

Page 82—In the section entitled “Decision Not To Cancel Classes or Lock Down:”

“… Most police chiefs consulted in this review believe that a lockdown was not feasible.” This statement is clearly intended to make excuses for a bad decision not to act. First, it runs counter to the decision the school made nine months earlier; and second, the reader is not told how many police chiefs were asked, how many said the school should have been locked down, and were any of the police chiefs from other states (and therefore would have no ties to the police in and around Blacksburg.”



Once again the report puts a positive foot forward when talking about the police. See page 98—Key Findings:

“Overall, the police from Virginia Tech and Blacksburg did an outstanding job in responding quickly and using appropriate active-shooter procedures to advance to the shooters location and to clear Norris Hall.” The danger of this type of positive lead is that many people do not read a report this size, the skim it. How do you skim? Usually the reader reads the topic sentences of each section carefully and the skimming over the rest. So, for the quick reader, what is the impression? “Overall the police from Virginia Tech and Blacksburg did an outstanding job…” This topic sentence technique is well known to professional writers and I am sure Tri Data is well aware of it.

The recommendations for this section are so broad as to be meaningless. Many will only read the Key Findings and the Recommendations. If you have not read the chapter, you would not understand the importance of the failings when it came to Norris Hall. The Recommendations need to be specific and give examples. Look at page 99.

VIII-1—Campus police everywhere should train with local police or instructions by phone to people in a shooting or facing other emergencies.

VIII-2—Dispatchers should be cautious when giving advice or instructions by phone to people in shooting or facing other threats without knowing the situation. This is broad recommendations that stems from reviewing other U.S. shooting incidents as well, such as the Columbine High School shootings. For instance, telling someone to stay still when they should flee or flee when they should stay still can result in unnecessary deaths. When in doubt dispatchers should just be reassuring. They should be careful when asking people to talk into the phone when they may be overheard by a gunman. Also, local law enforcement dispatchers should be familiar with the major campus buildings of colleges and universities in their area.

VIII-3—Police should escort survivors out of buildings, where circumstances and manpower permit.

VIII-4—Schools should check the hardware on exterior doors to ensure that they are not subject to being chained shut.

VIII-5—Take bomb threats seriously. Students and staff should report them immediately, even if most do turn out to be false alarms.



Please look at the Key Findings on page 121. Again the report engages in word games. The Key Findings are divided into “Positive Lessons” and “Areas for Improvement”—this is word games. Keep these two categories, but add one “Areas of Failure.” To give short shrift to the failures is to do a disservice to the victims, their families, and all Virginians. (The same is true of the Key Findings on pages 131-132.)