Virginia Tech tried, in so many ways, to posit it did not know this, it did not know that about Cho and the his violent tendency. The school paid two public relations firms close to a million dollars to spin the story that it was a victim. (May I remind you that the families of those killed got $100,000? And, two families whose daughters were killed, the Pryde’s and Peterson’s, got nothing—absolutely nothing.)
Well, let’s look closer at Cho’s warning signs and you judge for yourself what the school knew and what it did not know. You decide if then-President Charles Steger and then-Virginia Tech Police Chief were victims, or whether they were incompetent and negligent.
In August 2003, Cho entered Virginia Tech as a business information technology major. His parents were so concerned about him and his adjustment to college life that they visited him once a week, every week, during his first semester. Cho was not happy with his roommate and requested a change, but other than that, his freshman year appears to have gone fairly well. His grades were good, and he ended his first year with a 3.0 GPA.
On November 6, 2004, Cho sent an email to the English Department head, Lucinda Roy. The Addendum notes that this appears to be the first concrete evidence of what sparked Cho’s interest in writing. He told Professor Roy that he had attended her poetry writing class the previous semester and asked for advice in finding a publisher for a short novel he had written. She responded by recommending two books with tips on finding literary agents.
In Cho’s sophomore year he moved off campus, sharing a condominium with a senior who was rarely home. He took more math and science classes and his grades began to slip. During his second year, Cho decided to switch his major to English beginning in the Fall of 2005—a move that has puzzled many because of his dislike of words, but also because English was his second language and it had not been one of his stronger classes.
Cho’s sister began to notice he was bringing home books on literature and poetry. He seemed to be developing a passion for writing. In the spring of 2005, Cho took three English courses. He did not do particularly well, earning a D+, C+, and a B+ respectively in the three classes. About that time, his sister found a rejection letter from a publisher. She encouraged him to keep writing and explained that many successful writers go through numerous rejections before finding a publisher.
In the Fall of 2005, foreboding signs began to emerge. From that time on, Cho would become known to students and faculty as withdrawn and hostile. His family noticed he was not writing as much and that he seemed more withdrawn. When he did write, his writings took on violent overtones and his behavior became threatening. He registered for French and four English classes. One of the English classes was Professor Nikki Giovanni’s Creative Writing Poetry.
Cho’s odd behavior soon began to alarm Professor Giovanni.
What was Cho’s disturbing behavior? First, he wore reflector glasses to class and pulled his hat down to obscure his face. Professor Giovanni took class time to ask him to remove his hat and glasses and stood next to his desk until he complied. He next began wearing a Bedouin-style scarf wrapped around his head—an action that Giovanni believed was intended to intimidate her.
Second, Cho was uncooperative in both presenting his papers and changing their content. When asked to revise his drafts he would turn in exactly the same thing the following week. He read from his desk in a barely audible voice. The situation went from bad to worse.
Third, one of Cho’s papers was especially disturbing. Entitled, “So-Called Advanced Creative Writing—Poetry,” Cho accused his fellow students of eating animals. The Governor’s Review Panel Report quotes Cho as writing, “I don’t know which uncouth, low-life planet you come from but you disgust me. In fact, you all disgust me. … You low-life barbarians make me sick to the stomach that I wanna barf over my new shoes. If you despicable human beings who are all disgraces to [the] human race keep this up, before you know it you will turn into cannibals—eating little babies, your friends. I hope y’all burn in hell for ass murdering and eating all those little animals.”
Fourth, Cho began taking pictures of his fellow students without their permission, an action that caused alarm and concern and prompted a number of students to stay away from class. Giovanni asked one of the students what was going on and he responded, “It’s the boy … everyone is afraid of him.”
Giovanni took her concerns to the head of the English Department, Professor Lucinda Roy. In fact, Giovanni was so concerned for her wellbeing and the safety of her students that she threatened to quit unless Cho was removed from her class. That should have been warning enough for the school to take immediate action for psychological counseling and care—but it was not. Giovanni was offered security, but declined and said Cho was not welcome back in the class. In the final analysis, Cho was offered, and accepted, private tutoring from the head of the English Department, Professor Lucinda Roy.
Roy contacted Tom Brown, the Dean of Student Affairs, the Cook Counseling Center, and the College of Liberal Arts. Roy asked Cho be given a psychological evaluation and wanted to know if the picture-taking violated the code of student conduct. At this point, with this warning, the school should have taken swift and prompt action to deal with Cho’s menacing behavior. But nothing was done.
Dean Brown emailed Roy saying, “There is no specific policy related to cell phones in class. But, in Section 2 of the University Policy for Student Life, item #6 speaks to disruption. This is the ‘disorderly conduct’ section that reads: ‘Behavior that disrupts or interferes with the orderly function of the university, disturbs the peace, or interferes with the performance of the duties of university personnel.’ Clearly the disruption he (Cho) caused falls under this policy if adjudicated.”
In addition, Dean Brown added, “I talked with a counselor … and shared the content of the ‘poem’ … and she did not pick up on a specific threat. She suggested a referral to Cook (Counseling Center) during your meeting. I also spoke with Frances Keene, Judicial Affairs director and she agrees with your plan.” Dean then asserted, “I would make it clear to him (Cho) that any similar behavior in the future will be referred.”
Ms. Keene later told the Governor’s Review Panel that she would have needed something in writing to initiate an investigation into Cho’s disorderly conduct. She said she never received a written request, which she contends should have come from the English Department. That may be technically true, but it is hard to believe that a person in Ms. Keene’s position would be so void of common sense that she did not follow up on the situation. The fact that a professor was threatening to resign from fear for her life and the welfare of her students, and nothing was done because of a lack of a sheet of paper, is astounding. When someone fears for her or his life, is it too much to expect appropriate university officials to monitor the situation?
Ms. Keene did tell the review panel that she “recalled” that concern for Cho was brought up to the university’s Care Team. She indicated that Care Team members were briefed on the situation and told that Professors Roy and Giovanni wanted to proceed with a class change to address the matter. She also recalled that the perception of the team was that the situation was taken care of and Cho was not discussed again. The Care Team did not refer Cho to the Cook Counseling Center.
Cho agreed to meet with Professor Roy, answering her email request with an angry two-page letter criticizing Professor Giovanni. Roy asked a friend and fellow English professor, Cheryl Ruggiero, to be present at the meeting and to take notes. When Cho arrived, he was wearing dark sunglasses, presenting the image that had gotten him into trouble in Giovanni’s class. Roy, just as Giovanni, asked Cho to remove his glasses. He complied, but only after a lengthy pause. Throughout the meeting Cho was quiet and took a long time to answer questions.
In the final analysis, Roy was obliged to offer Cho an alternative to poetry class, and that alternative was for her to tutor him. Twice during the meeting Roy asked Cho to talk to a counselor, saying she would be happy to recommend one. He hesitated to answer, but finally said, “Sure.”
One month after meeting with Cho, Roy wrote to Associate Dean Mary Ann Lewis, Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, saying that the private tutoring sessions were going well. Roy noted however, that Cho’s writing was riddled with images of shooting and harming people. According to Roy, he was angered by people in authority and also angered by their behavior. Roy asserted that she remained “very worried” about Cho and noted that he continued to wear reflective sunglasses during the tutoring sessions. Roy continued to urge him to seek counseling. Roy also noted that she was very impressed with his writing—he ended up getting an “A.” (To be continued)