Viewpoint: Va. Tech's President Should Resign

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Mannie Garcia / AFP / Getty

Virginia Tech President Dr. Charles W. Steger.

The president of Virginia Tech, Charles Steger, should resign. But not because of the school's rather slow realization Monday morning that a demented murderer was on campus. Mass shootings are infinitesimally rare. As the Department of Justice points out here, in 2004 less than .1% of all homicides involved five or more victims. The rate of homicides involving more than two victims has been under 1% since at least the mid-'70s (although the rate of two-victim murders — like Cho Seung-Hui's first two killings in Ambler Johnston Hall — has increased over the years). In other words, statistically speaking, the cops who arrived at Ambler Johnston on Monday morning to find two dead bodies had every reason to believe the killer was finished. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

But assuming that an unknown murderer won't leave the scene and keep shooting people — something almost no murderer does — is different from assuming that a person who has long been identified as a threat, as Cho had, won't hurt someone. The fateful decisions that cost the lives of 30 more people at Virginia Tech weren't made on Monday morning; they were made in the previous 18 months.

From a legal standpoint, this distinction is crucial. As law professor Michael Krauss of George Mason University in Virginia points out, "We never judge negligence in hindsight. We always judge it in foresight." And you can make a good case that the Virginia Tech cops and other employees who knew of Cho's erratic, self-destructive, and possibly criminal behavior since the fall of 2005 should have done more to help him or expel him.

Consider only what we know so far:

Some time during the first semester of the 2005-06 academic year, English professor Lucinda Roy told campus police that she was worried about Cho's bizarre writings. We don't know exactly what Cho wrote that concerned Roy — the university is, shamefully, withholding that information — but we do know, thanks to a former classmate who works at AOL, that Cho wrote two plays strongly suggesting that he might have been raped when he was a boy and that he had intense revenge fantasies. ("Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die," the protagonist in one play says.)

Two men who lived in the same suite as Cho told CNN on Tuesday that he had stalked at least three women. Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum said yesterday that two women contacted campus police in 2005 to say Cho had made inappropriate contact with them. Cops had to interrogate Cho twice in December 2005, once about the alleged stalking and once a day later, when an acquaintance of Cho's called the police to say he might be suicidal.

Police asked Cho to speak to a counselor from a local mental-health facility; afterward, a magistrate issued a temporary detention order committing Cho to a psychiatric hospital. It's very difficult to obtain such orders; patients must not only be deemed mentally ill but unfit to care for themselves or an immediate danger. Court records show that Cho was not deemed an imminent threat, but it should have been clear by then that he was deeply troubled.

Someone should have been keeping an eye on Cho. If police or the counselor had even thought to follow up on Cho this year, they would have discovered easily from his suite mates that the man was unbalanced: he barely spoke, unless to make prank calls identifying himself as Question Mark; he slept fitfully and with the lights on; he seemed to have or desire no human contact whatsoever.

Roy had the most serious evidence on Cho, evidence that should have been used to ask him to leave the university not on mental-health grounds but for violations of behavior rules. She told CNN he was taking pictures of women under desks; she told the New York Times that she "had been so nervous about taking him on as an individual student that she worked out a code with her assistant: if she mentioned the name of a dead professor, her assistant would know it was time to call security." The only reason Roy was taking him on one-on-one was that another professor, poet Nikki Giovanni, had refused to teach Cho because he "intimidated" so many of her other students. At one point, according to the Washington Post, only seven of roughly 70 students showed up for Giovanni's class because most were so frightened of him.

So here was a man who was actively intimidating other students and who had inappropriately and repeatedly photographed and contacted female students. His own suite mates say he was a stalker. That the university did not suspend Cho for such violations makes a solid case for negligence.

In a rational legal system, the school would be held accountable for its errors. But Virginia Tech is a state institution, and Virginia is a state where the doctrine of sovereign immunity remains quite robust. That doctrine, a relic of English common law, essentially says the state can do no wrong because the state creates the law and thus cannot be subject to it. Many states have relaxed sovereign immunity and made it possible for victims of, say, botched operations to sue state hospitals. But Krauss of George Mason University says the Virginia Tech victims' families would probably have to seek an exception to sovereign immunity from the Supreme Court of Virginia in order to sue the school.

There's a simpler way: Steger, the university president, should stop withholding documents on how the university mishandled Cho and take responsibility for his school's lax approach. And then he should resign.