Analysis and Application of Crisis Intervention and Society: The Virginia Tech School Shooting Incident

Burruss Hall, signature building on the Virgin...
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Main Building Campus VA Tech

 by Elizabeth Hall

On April 16, 2007, the world is shocked to turn on their televisions and see the news, as this, is a day that the college of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the rest of America will not soon forget.  A lone gunman, Seung Hui Cho, perpetrated two separate incidents of violence on the campus early that morning finally committing 
suicide, and the events of this day changed the way crisis interventions proceedings on school campuses precede forever (Panel, 2009).  The panel created after the critical incident called the Virginia Tech Review Panel, simply, was charged with examining the way the incident was handled and determining whether the worst school shooting in United States history could have been prevented with better systems available for the mental health issues facing our nation’s troubled youth (Hall, 2010).  According to Hickey (n.d. pp 7. par 3), this type of incident is classified as mass murder, and statistically growing in frequency in modern times.  Because crisis intervention begins the moment an event begins, and continues until after the critical incident is over, notes Transition Counseling Services (n.d.), it is critical that communities and law enforcement, both on campuses and in communities have effective crisis intervention and response methods in place, as was discovered at VA Tech on that fateful day. 
Details of the VA Tech School Shooting Crisis
The Virginia Tech Review Panel report (Panel, 2009), notes the timeline of events for the day beginning at 5:00 am with Cho at his computer, and then being gone around 5:30.  What he did for the next 45 minutes is anyone’s guess, but could be assumed preparation and travel time for his appearance in the lobby of West Ambler Johnston Hall where he fatally wounds Emily Hirscher and RA Ryan Clark.  At 7:17 am, Cho is back at his room, changing and cancelling his accounts in preparation for the rest of the events he has planned for the day.  No one reports seeing him until sometime between 9:00 and 9:40 am, when he made his way to the Blacksburg Post Office (Panel, 2009). 
Norris Hall, Virginia Polytechnic Institute an...
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Norris Hall
At the Post Office, he mails NBC a package containing videos of him declaring that he wanted to “even the score” against those who had “oppressed him”, including an 1800 word manifesto,  hinting that there was more to come, and photographs of him holding various weapons (Panel, 2009).  He also mails a letter that is critical about his professor, Carl Bean, to the English Department at VA Tech.  After this, Cho is observed at Norris Hall; however, he had a class at that time in the building so no one thought anything of his presence while he chained the entrance doors to the building, as he was a rather quiet invisible individual.  About 9:40 am, holds the review panel (Panel, 2009), he opens fire in room 206 wounding three people, and killing nine, continuing the rampage for ten minutes, shooting himself approximately at 9:50 am.  In the past ten minutes, he has succeeded in killing thirty more people and wounding dozens more. 
Seung Hui Cho’s Mental Health History
One of the photographs of Seung-Hui Cho that h...
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Seung Hui Cho 
For classification purposes, James (2008) would call Cho an estranged violent juvenile offender, due to his background and familial circumstances.  Cho’s mental issues began early in life at the tender age of 9 months according to the history revealed by the Panel’s (2009) findings.  Medical problems caused by pneumonia and whooping cough treatments and a heart murmur discovery followed by cardiac testing at three, left him with an aversion to being touched.  This experience also left him considered frail, weak, and fussy, and he developed very few friends during his childhood. 
Cho’s parents, the Panel (2009) finds, were already concerned about how quiet their son was, and their decision to move to the United States when he was eight only exacerbated the issue.  His parents found work at a laundry, enabling them to get by without learning English, but also requiring long hours away from the home to make enough money.  They moved again when Cho was nine; however, his parents thought that he was improving since he was taking Tae Kwon Do lessons, collecting figurines and pretty much behaving like any other boy with the exception of extreme shyness, which was noticed by the school system.  By middle school, he actually received the diagnosis of selective mutism.  He is prescribed antidepressants due to reflections of suicide noticed in writings, and a psychiatric evaluation is ordered (Panel, 2009). 
Because Cho’s condition has improved on the antidepressants he has taken for one year, doctors decide to take him off medication, and he receives no mental health treatment until high school.  At this time, he is diagnosed differently, and it is decided that he has an “emotional disability” according to the Panel (2009), put into a special education program, and prescribed art therapy.  He has no further indications of trouble except the ever-present shyness until he goes away to VA Tech after he graduates high school.  It is not, until he moves off campus in his second year, spending most of him time alone, that the issues resurface, notes the Panel (2009). 
The troubles seem to surround his newfound interest in writing.  He writes a book and submits it to a publishing house, only to have it rejected, but succeeds in getting his major changed to English the report goes on to say (Panel, 2009) and moves back into the dorms in his junior year.  It is then that Cho is noted to have more serious problems than thought, says the Panel (2009), following his behavior at a parties and labeled as strange.  This is followed by a request from his English teacher that he transfers to another class, since she is not comfortable with his violent writings.  Cho is also said; to take photographs against other student’s will, prompting a report to several agencies including the Dean and Vice Presidents of Student Affairs, the Cook County Counseling Center, and the campus police department.  
This was discussed, Cho was recommended for counseling, which he did not do, and was moved from the class.  Nothing else happened until 2005 when he was all but accused of stalking a female student, and of setting fires at school, reports the Panel (2009).  This matter also fell through the cracks with the exception of the phone triage report filed by Cho, after his visit to the VA Tech Police Department.  It was not until after he was accused of stalking a few more girls, and a statement about suicide that the problems with Cho were taken more seriously, and taken to a psychiatric facility for an evaluation.  He again slipped through the cracks when he was found, to be not a threat to himself and released the next morning (Panel 2009).   
They do however recommend that he be treated on an outpatient basis, which Cho does not follow through with on any level.  He has an incident with Carl Bean over his writing, and in response, writes a play in which the main character hates his classmates, killing them and himself for the plot, while also having a few other instances with students and staff (Panel, 2009).  Cho is still not forced into counseling, and is still allowed to attend his classes.  In February, he purchases a gun, and in March buys a Glock 9mm along with renting a van.  All of this while, he has been repeatedly overlooked as any serious threat, or in need of mandatory mental health services. 
Seven Stages of Crisis Intervention
Ottens and Roberts (2005), offer a model of crisis intervention, which utilizes seven steps to an effective crisis outcome.   These stages are critical, and are found to be the usual stages that people in crisis states need to stabilize, resolve the immediate crisis, and master the skills needed to cope with situations that cause crisis.  The first stage is to plan and administer a complete assessment of the biopsychosocial and imminent danger to the client and anyone else around the crisis area.  Next, we should establish a psychological and collaborating relationship with the client, followed by identifying the problems that lead to this including any specific triggering events.  Step four is to persuade the client to explore their emotions and feelings, then on to generating new strategies for coping with crises with the client.  Steps six and seven respectively forming a plan of action, getting a commitment to the action, and planning definite follow up sessions with mental health workers (Ottens & Roberts, 2005). 
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Blacksburg Police
Crisis Intervention Methods Utilized During the VA Tech Crisis
If you follow the steps taken by the administration and law enforcement during the 2007 massacre, it looks as if there were little or no attempts by the school to implement much crisis intervention strategies before the incident.  Here is a rundown of what happened on the administrative and law enforcement efforts were, during the crisis as reported by the Panel (2009). Five minutes after the initial shooting of Hirscher and Clark, the Virginia Tech Police Department receives a call from a secondhand reporter telling them that Hirscher has fallen off the bed in her room; this would be at 7:15 am.  They are on the scene asking questions and interviewing witnesses by 7:24 am with the full investigation underway by 7:30.
 No one has a description of Cho or anyone leaving the dorm after the shots are fired.  Within the next twenty minutes, the VA Tech Police Chief, and the Executive Vice President of the university, although it was another full ten minutes after the shooting that President Steiger is notified at approximately 8:10 am.  For the next thirty minutes, law enforcement continues with their investigations, and the victim’s roommate is questioned, leading to the search for Emily’s boyfriend, Kevin Thornhill, who is promptly named a “person of interest” in the case (Panel, 2009).  The problem that should be evident here is that everyone is reacting, instead of just simply acting in the best interest of the situation.  No one at this point has any inkling of what horrors will come to pass in roughly and hour’s time (Panel, 2009). 
Meanwhile, as noted by the Panel (2009), the story has been leaked by two employees of VA Tech who talked to people outside the school for various reasons.  Classes have begun for the day, and the Emergency Response Team has been notified concerning the possible arrest of a potential suspect.  Administration, Blacksburg Police, and VA Tech’s police force are looking for the perpetrator of this double murder, classifying the incident as domestic.  Policy Makers are making plans to inform the students of the incident, while law enforcement frantically searched for Kevin Thornhill, who they find during a traffic stop, and haul him in for questioning (Panel, 2009). 
Through all of this, which continues on, no one seems to be doing anything effective, and there seems to be some very distinctive communications problems.  As the hour wears on, they do manage to appoint a VA Tech police captain as liaison on the Policy Team, and send out a campus wide e-mail alerting everyone about the double murder, as noted by the Panel (2009).  Just before 9:40 am when the violence breaks out again in Norris Hall, the police update the Policy Team that Thornhill is not appearing to be the shooter.  During the next ten minutes, as Cho begins his rampage, people calling the Blacksburg police reporting the noise are shuffled clumsily around to the VA Tech police, and when the message finally reaches them then the EMS is called from the county to come in and address the possible wounded (Panel, 2009). 
Police carrying victim out of Norris Hall
It was 9:50 am, when police finally reached Norris Hall’s second floor, where Cho was shooting, in just enough time for Cho to commit suicide, shooting himself in the head (Panel, 2009).  During these eleven minutes, he has managed to fire 174 times, killing 30 people, and wounding 17 more.  Because the collegiate level mental health system at VA Tech suffered from departmental communication issues, and Cho’s shyness, this student who was mentally deteriorating rapidly, fell through the cracks and perpetrated the worst school shooting incident in our country’s history.  The VA Tech Review Panel found several instances of fault in the system, which included a lack of information sharing between departments, and that communication between medical departments showed large indications of system failure especially in regards to the commitment process.  It was also recognized that the failure o recognize this was at least in part due to Cho himself not disclosing correct information the few times that he did have contact with mental health services and police (Panel, 2009).  
Changes to Crisis Intervention after VA Tech Incident
James (2008) notes that there are specific problems in changing policy at the University level, and of course that the public and administration’s first thoughts to action when big issues like this occur is to put tighter control on the gun laws in our country.  The fact remains that Cho’s gun purchase was one hundred percent legal.  In reality the gun laws are not the real problem, it is the myriad of red tape and laws put in place to protect our privacy.  In a university setting, the HIPPA and FERPA laws can actually make it impossible for Universities to do anything about students like Cho, including contacting their parents, mandating mental health care, or removing them from the school by dismissing.  They are also not allowed to suspend them from classes, or remove them from a residence hall, due to the FERPA Act of 1974, and the HIPPA Act of 1996 limiting the communication of private information between campus mental health services and those of the rest of the community (James, 2008).
Drakontas (2007), holds that in this instance, the VA Tech police department waited two hours after the first shootings to inform everyone campus wide about the murders of Hirscher and Clark.  They do however state that there have been positive changes in communications, since this massacre happened at the VA Tech college that fateful day.  One of these is that most universities around our country have put in solid measures to effective communication, which ensures that mass communication systems are available during crises.  The fact of the matter remains that when something happens on a school campus, it affects the whole community not just the campus itself, and when it is a University, such as VA Tech it affects our whole nation, as there are usually many out of state students attending as well (Drakontas 2007). 
Another way that this particular crisis changed the processes of crisis intervention, noted, by Bonnie, Hamilton, McGarvey, & Reinhard (2008), is a total re-evaluation of the mental health care system in the state of Virginia.  This resulted in laws enacted that promote the smooth cooperation between the court and services systems in the state, and launching collaborative data systems to aid in the supervision of the civil commitment process.  This also included procedures for oversight, and providing education to the public, and those responsible for making policies concerning mental health and public concern.  Bonnie et al (2008), states that this education involves teaching about the effects on mental health issues when the client has gaps in treatments, and about the escalation of demand on our court, jail, and hospital systems now that there are deinstitutionalization policies in this country where mental patients are concerned.  In fact, many states revamped their procedures in the wake of this tragedy according to Drakontas (2007). 
Ways Crisis Intervention Improvements Has Impacted Society
Healy, Lynch, Margolis, Stafford, Taylor, and Thrower (2008) of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), state, “The impact of the rampage shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 continues to be felt across the country and the world.”  This is true, because in the wake of this tragedy, we have been forced to look at how we protect our kids from the escalating numbers of mental patients that have been put back into society since the passing of the Community Health Centers Act in 1963 in an effort to deinstitutionalize mental health care (James, 2008).  As a result, law enforcement, prisons, and jails are the normal repository for mental health patients causing disruption in society, and Crisis Intervention Teams have become necessary for most states and cities to deal with this influx.  Crisis Intervention Teams are properly trained to deal specifically with those people who pose a danger to themselves or others and are effective measures against excessive fatalities when used during a crisis. 
Cho in videos sent to NBC
Healy et al (2008) of the IACLEA, suggest that there are at least 20 key recommendations organized in several categories that they found which would improve campus safety, particularly higher learning institutions, immensely, and provide guidelines for when implicating plans for safety in an institutional setting such as a university for all campuses.  These areas are emergency planning and critical incident response, assuring campus law enforcement agencies empowerment, and funding necessary, along with campus wide education distributed to teach students and staff about safety risks and prevention methods.  They also recommend that the concealment and carrying of weapons on campuses be limited to campus law enforcement only. Another thing that has impacted society is the technology that is being used in campus safety programs such as automated card access control systems, intrusion detection systems, and video surveillance. 
The United States Dept of Health and Human Services (DHHS) (2007), has the following to say regarding the impact on society in light of this tragedy, but also of others that have occurred before and after VA Tech’s massacre.  They formed a review panel and visited educators, mental health and law enforcement professionals, and other state local and federal professionals in order to determine what is really needed to ensure safety in our schools.  These findings have helped to shape how we currently handle crises on the local, state, and federal levels.  As a result, the major issues that were raised by these tragedies brought to the forefront the ramifications of the act passed in 1963, and have served to shape the delicate balance between protecting our communities, civil liberties, and privacy while simultaneously ensuring that people are provided access to the help that they need when in crisis (United States Dept of Health and Human Services, 2007).
Responding to the crisis at VA Tech
Transition Counseling Services (n.d.), holds that crisis intervention begins the moment that a critical incident begins, and continues long after it is over for those involved, and that it is critical that all involved in the campuses, community law enforcement and mental health services must have an effective crisis intervention response methods in place before such an incident occurs.  Tragedies such as the one that happened on the VA Tech campus in 2007 and the others that have occurred since have made our leaders, officials, mental health, and law enforcement personnel aware of the rapid pace that things can go awry when not properly trained and prepared when something like this occurs.  As a result of these tragedies, and the issues they brought to our attention, our professionals are constantly improving the way that we handle crisis response, the secure protection of our communities, civil liberties and privacy, while balancing these needs against the needs of the mentally ill, ensuring the safety of all people. 
Bonnie, R.J., Hamilton, P., McGarvey, E.L., & Reinhard, J.S., (2008).  Mental Health System Transformation After the Virginia Tech Tragedy.  Health Affairs: Volume 28, Number 3.  Retrieved From: http://www.courts.state.va.us/programs/cmh/background/2009_05_mh_syst_transformation_health_affairs.pdf
Drakontas LLC, (2007) White Paper: A Comprehensive Review of the Legislative Response and an Assessment of the Divergent State of Campus Security and Communications Technology post Virginia Tech Massacre.  Retrieved From: http://drakontas.com/articles/Drakontas%20Campus%20Security%20Whitepaper.pdf
Hall, E.M., (2010).  VA Tech Massacre: Mentally Ill or Monster?  A Story of System Failure.  Retrieved From: http://criminologyjust.blogspot.com/2011/05/va-tech-massacre-mentally-ill-or.html
Healy, S.J., Lynch, M., Margolis, G.J, Ph.D, Stafford, D., Taylor, W., & Thrower, R.H., (2008).  Overview of the Virginia Tech Tragedy and Implications for Campus Safety: The IACLEA Blueprint for Safer Campuses.  IACLEA Special Review Task Force, April 18, 2008.  Retrieved From: https://gustavus.edu/safety/iacleablueprint.pdf
Hickey, E. W. (n.d.) Serial Murderers and Their Victims.  Fourth Edition.  Mason:
               Cengage Learning
James, R.K. (2008).  Crisis Intervention Strategies, Sixth Edition.  Cengage Learning.  United States

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1 comment:

  1. Individuals are more open to receiving help during crisis.The length of time for crisis intervention may range from one session to several weeks.crisis intervention services are needed for those who need addiction intervention services.
    Crisis Intervention
    Family Intervention


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