The small town of Blacksburg in Southern Virginia was, at one point, only that: a small town, nestled along the New River Valley. The trip from the cities of the north will lead you witnessing the significant change of scenery as you cruise down I-81, from cityscapes to treelines, from city streets to nature trails, from Smithsonian Museums to the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the boisterous white noise of a congested population to the melodies of the rural countryside.
And, of course, it will lead you to the spirited Hokie Nation.
But this little Virginia gem was not brought under the eyes of the new millennium by its quaint charm. It wasn’t Blacksburg’s or Virginia Tech’s spirited community or the university’s technological innovations or successes in science and agriculture, nor was it Beamer Ball that brought it under the spotlight of the world.
It was a 23-year-old English major from northern Virginia, and the 32 people he murdered on campus that brought the spotlight to Virginia Tech and an issue that continues to be debated to this day.
The beautiful campus and its community was eternally scarred by the violence of that April day of darkness fourteen years ago. Today, there is still a certain, strange air carried on the winds throughout campus that leaves one keeping an eye open and scanning their surroundings, and there’s rarely a day where students do not pass or visit the memorial at the top of the drillfield in front of Burruss Hall: 32 stones for the 32 taken from us too soon.
April 16th always brings back the pictures of that tragic day: students evacuated from campus, huddled together in a circle at a local church; sheriff officers carrying survivors from the scene by their arms and legs; tearful mothers holding tight the child who just left their nest for the first time; other mothers searching frantically among the large crowds of bloodied faces for their children, praying that they are not one of the many carried away in body bags; President Bush, a father himself, addressing the university, seeking to comfort a confused, sorrowful student body of 25,000; Resident Poet Nikki Giovanni absorbing all that sorrow into her pen and converting it into prose of flourishing inspiration as she cries out, “We Are Virginia Tech!”
The date also brings back to remember the student and shooter Seung Hui Cho, who was described as an isolated individual preferring to be by himself. He hardly spoke in class and, when he was called to do so, he spoke barely above a whisper. The content of his written assignments and projects at Virginia Tech caught the concerning attention of his professors, and the videos and manifesto he sent to NBC left people anxiously asking questions about his mental stability. What could have led him to commit such a seemingly random act of carnage? What could have been done to stop it?
School shootings have been well covered and documented over the last several years. As a result, studies have shown that there are a number of common risk factors that can indicate if someone is at risk of harming themselves and/or others. Risk factors commonly associated with school shooters include creating or engaging in content–writings, drawings, etc.–depicting violence or violent fantasies, difficulty controlling anger, suicidal and homicidal ideations, social isolation and social deficits, victim/martyr self-concept, paranoia and interest in other shooting situations.
“I think those are very good starting points,” said Dr. Suzanne Hollman, Academic Dean and Director of Divine Mercy University’s Psy.D. Program, in an interview on EWTN after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “The research right now is all over the place. But what we do know is that all of these things are risk factors. All of these things can predispose someone to making a decision or planning something that dramatic. A lot of it stems from social isolation–not being seen in the world–and then trying to find these mechanisms to ensure that they are noticed.”
After the attack, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine assigned an independent panel to review the events leading up to the tragedy and how they were handled. The panel was also charged with developing a profile and investigating the life of Cho leading up to April 16th, including his mental health records, which showed that Cho displayed all these red flags during his last two years at the university.
But the panel didn’t just shed light on the indicators that developed during his final two years. The panel discovered other details in Cho’s life that could also have been contributing factors.
According to their review, Cho was a shy boy who rarely spoke and, when he moved with his family from South Korea to the United States, he became more withdrawn. He allegedly resented the pressure of speaking in public, and would avoid speaking both at home and at school. When called to speak–particularly if his family had a visitor–Cho would freeze on the spot and grow incredibly anxious. He would become pale, develop sweaty palms, and in some cases, begin to cry and resort to nodding yes or shaking his head no.
Cho’s parents tried to urge him to become more involved in different activities and local sports because they worried he was becoming more isolated and lonely. On the other hand, transportation to any event in general was a challenge in itself, as Cho’s parents worked long hours during the week and were not able to take him or his sister to any extracurricular activities. His father was stern on matters of respect, which is something the two would argue about. According to one of the records reviewed by the independent panel, Cho’s father would not praise his son, and one of his writings later included a father-son relationship where the father was always negative. Eventually, Cho’s parents decided to “let him be the way he is” and not force him to interact and talk with others.
Doing so may not have been in their son’s best interest. Extreme social deficits is not just a key indicator of a serious mental health issue. According to 2018 Divine Mercy University Psy.D. graduate Amanda Aulbaugh Faria’s dissertation entitled “Mass School Shooters: Psychosocial Characteristics in the Lives of the Perpetrators,” it’s also a common characteristic among school shooters. Nine out of the nineteen school shooters that Faria studied had significant social deficits. One shooter was quiet, was disliked by her peers, walked around by herself and did not participate in class at school. Another shooter suffered significant social anxiety and was seen as “odd, goofy or weird.” Twelve of the nineteen studied also displayed antisocial characteristics.
“The negatives have already been identified,” said Dr. Paul Vitz, Divine Mercy University Senior Scholar and Professor, who has recently begun researching school shootings and their perpetrators, from elementary school to high school. “They were depressed, or they came from dysfunctional families, or they were all obsessed with violence. They had a variety of negative characteristics.”
In his own research of school shooters, Dr. Vitz found that one thing common among the shooters is not merely a variety of negative risk factors, but also a lack of positive things in their lives.
“None of them seemed to have a goal in life,” he said. “None of them wanted to be a star musician, no one wanted to be an athlete, none of them talked about being businessmen or have success at college. Second, none were involved in any pro-social organizations. None were in scouts or 4-H. None were in a civic society or were helping the poor, none were involved with any of the virtues or active in any faith.”
In Faria’s study, many of the shooters were involved with different activities as younger children, but as they grew older into middle school and high school, they began to withdraw from social activities. Others, including Sandy Hook shooter Bill Lanza, had no social interests or did not engage in any social activities from the beginning.
“It isn’t just the overwhelming presence of many negatives,” continued Vitz. “It’s the absence of the positives too.”
A second factor discovered was that Cho, who had been receiving psychiatric treatment prior to attending Virginia Tech, stopped his treatment before moving to Blacksburg, and the university had no knowledge of his mental health history.
According to the panel report, Cho’s middle school teachers noticed suicidal and homicidal ideations in his writings after the 1999 Columbine shootings. On their recommendation, Cho received psychiatric counseling and medication for a short time, and special accommodations were made to help Cho achieve top scores and honors in his coursework all through high school.
“Cho exhibited signs of mental health problems during his childhood,” the report reads. “His middle and high schools responded well to these signs and, with his parents’ involvement, provided services to address his issues. He also received private psychiatric treatment and counseling for selective mutism and depression.”
By the time Cho was preparing to leave home for college for the first time–entering as a business major before making the switch to English–neither he nor his high school revealed that he had been receiving special education services as an emotionally disabled student. As a result, no one at Virginia Tech ever became aware of his pre-existing conditions until it was too late, leaving him to carry on without the critical helped that assisted him to cope and flourish.
Since that tragic day in 2007, colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to both help those individuals with anxiety and mental issues. Many have added mental health professionals and university police officers to their campuses; faculty and staff members are being trained on how to spot worrisome behavior and reach out to those students in a preventative manner. Virginia Tech even became the first campus in the nation to be certified by an independent non-profit organization that established rigorous national standards for emergency planning.
A question still lingers: is it enough?
That question may never have an answer. But it’s the reverberation of gunshots that still faintly linger in the winds of Blacksburg, and in the tears that stain the 32 stones in front of Burruss Hall that pushes us to keep trying and keep innovating ways to help our mentally ill and, in doing so, trying our hardest to prevent another April 16th.
If you’re passionate about helping those who have witnessed or suffered serious trauma, or if you want to help those with serious mental illness, consider the M.S. in Psychology, M.S. in Counseling or Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology at Divine Mercy University.
“Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007, Report of the Review Panel”. Presented to Governor Tim Kaine, Commonwealth of Virginia, August 2007. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/prevail/docs/VTReviewPanelReport.pdf
Faria, A. A. Mass school shootings: Psychosocial characteristics in the lives of perpetrators (Doctoral Dissertation). Divine Mercy University, 2018. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2100701144). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2100701144?accountid=27532
Friedman, Emily. “Va. Tech Shooter Seung-Hui Cho’s Mental Health Records Released.” ABC News, 19 Aug. 2009, https://abcnews.go.com/US/seung-hui-chos-mental-health-records-released/story?id=8278195
Hausman, Sandy. “Lessons Learned at Virginia Tech: What Went Wrong?.” WVTF, 13 Apr. 2015, https://www.wvtf.org/post/lessons-learned-virginia-tech-what-went-wrong#stream/0
Langman, Peter. School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015.
O’Meara, Eamon. “Virginia Tech shooting may have changed how mental health was treated.” ABC WDBJ7, 14 Apr. 2017, https://www.wdbj7.com/content/news/Virginia-Tech-shooting-may-have-changed-how-mental-health-was-treated-419513643.html
Potter, Ned and David Schoetz, Richard Esposito, Pierre Thomas. “Killer’s Note: ‘You Caused Me to Do This’.” ABC News, 7 Apr. 2007, https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3048108&page=1