Today marks two years since Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and wounded many others at Virginia Tech in the deadliest single-gunman shooting in U.S. history. In her new book, No Right to Remain Silent, Lucinda Roy gives the first comprehensive account of that day. Then the head of the school's English department, Roy alerted school authorities about Cho's troubling behavior after first encountering him eighteen months prior to the shooting. TIME's Laura Fitzpatrick spoke with Roy about her memories of the gunman and how she thinks we can prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
When was your last meeting with Seung-Hui Cho? (See pictures of the Scenes from the Virginia Tech shooting.)
December 2005, when he asked me to read his novel. I was kind of reluctant to do it. I was concerned that I'd find things in there that would make me uncomfortable. As it turned out, the novel was actually surprisingly tender. I know that sounds strange. For the most part, it was a juvenile relationship that he was exploring, a boy and a girl going to a playground and swinging on the swings. At one point it seems as though they're going to be happy forever it's the best section in the novel. And then everything suddenly falls apart and the narrator realizes it was just a dream. (See pictures of night falls on Virginia Tech.)
You were among the few people to raise a red flag about Cho, based on the violence in all of his previous creative-writing. How did that come about?
He had been in my large lecture class in spring 2004. In fall 2005, Professor Nikki Giovanni reported him to me because she was concerned about a poem he'd written for her class that seemed to be very angry. I asked him by email if he would come and see me. And his response was unusual. He said he assumed I would be yelling at him. I wrote back saying I don't yell at students and I really just had some questions about him. He came to talk with me and [English professor] Cheryl Ruggiero.
Cho had been diagnosed with severe depression and selective mutism, a social anxiety disorder that inhibited him from speaking. What was your first impression of him?
I'd never seen anyone as quiet as he was. Shyness didn't even seem to do it justice, because it would take him 10 to 20 seconds to respond to a question. He wore dark sunglasses so you could just see your own reflection in them. And he had a hat pulled down over his face, so it was difficult to see who he was. When he did answer, it was in a whisper ... It did seem to both Cheryl Ruggiero and to me that he was depressed. But of course I'm not a psychiatrist.
But you recommended that he see one?
I couldn't require a student to go to counseling. I could recommend that they go, and urge that they go, and I could even offer to go over with them. And I did that repeatedly. In December 2005, [Cho] told me that he had gone over to counseling ... Unfortunately, [according to the August 2007 review by a governor-appointed panel], he was never fully evaluated.
You tutored him through fall 2005. Did he ever open up?
He did say to me he was very lonely and we talked about homesickness. I'm an immigrant, too, and we talked about how difficult it could be to adjust to the culture of America. He seemed to want very much to be able to express himself.
Where were you the day of the shooting?
I was home that morning because I had a three-hour graduate evening seminar on poetry and so I was preparing for that. I had the television on. I've done that since 9/11 just to see if things were going ok. Then a map of Virginia came up with Blacksburg highlighted ... I think, to be honest, I'm still reacting to it in many ways. I'll be reacting to it the rest of my life.
Do you sympathize with Cho at all?
I'm very sorry that he was sick. I think he was severely ill. It makes things difficult as you look back, because what he did was just horrifying. There's no other word for it. It was horrifying.
In the days after the shooting, you spoke extensively to the media about the warning signs you saw in Cho. What was the response you got?
That was one of the most surprising things of all. I knew that there were problems at other institutions, but I had no idea that there were as many problems as there are. I was inundated with dozens and dozens of emails from faculty members and dozens from parents who responded saying they were trying to get help for their son or they were trying to get help for a student and the administration where they were was completely unresponsive or wasn't able to give help even if they wanted to. It became clear to me that this was a much larger problem than we'd like to admit.We can't simply react after a tragedy like this. We've got to be proactive and think about how we can try to prevent them.
So how can we?
By identifying children who may be in trouble and offering them assistance. The difficulty with that is you start to think about students' rights. Does this mean we're going to have profiling? Is every student who's "different" going to be targeted? We're going to face these issues. The most important thing is having people available to listen to these students. For example, we have to have some small classes, so that we know the names of these students and we notice if they're not responding. That was why Seung-Hui Cho was noticed in his English classes: because they were smaller.
We also need to have much better training for our faculty members. What do you do if you're suddenly confronted by a student who doesn't seem to want to respond? We're having a lot of teachers who are leaving teaching because the challenges are just too great. It's not that people don't want to help, because they do. But their hands are often tied.
What do you think of the laws under consideration in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, among other states, to allow guns on campus?
Almost every faculty member I've spoken to thinks that it would be a bad idea, because students are very young, almost volatile. Giving an "F," for example, to a student who is armed is a daunting prospect. But I wont dismiss this argument the way many people will. I think students have a point. If we can't keep them safe, don't they have a right to keep themselves safe?
Do you feel safer today at Virginia Tech than you did two years ago?
Overall I think I feel safer in that we have amazing people here who are really dedicated. Every one of us is doing everything we can. I think it's made us more vigilant. On the other hand, I'm a realist, and I still can't figure out what there is to prevent someone from bringing a small arsenal onto campus and doing whatever he or she wants to do.