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Virginia Tech Community Responds to Media Flurry

April 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: This morning, after NBC News released chilling video messages from the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, students on the campus of Virginia Tech grappled with their emotions.

SHONTE SOWARDS, Virginia Tech Student: We’re angered by it. I mean, it’s obvious that he was disturbed, and I don’t think it’s something that we need to hear over and over and over again. Yes, the video made it more real; yes, it made it easier for us to understand what kind of person we were dealing with. But he’s not what’s important about what happened. He’s not even close to what’s important about what happened.

GINNY KOONTZ, Virginia Tech Student: Yes, it has been mostly about the shooter up to now, but, you know, I think as soon as stories start to come out about the victims, it will overshadow the shooter.

TOM BEARDEN: The material aired on NBC’s “Nightly News” last night. Included were several photos of Cho brandishing weapons. Cho mailed this package to NBC in New York on Monday. It was postmarked at 9:01 a.m., in between the two shootings.

In it were a rambling, 23-page manifesto, 28 video clips, and 43 photos. The return address was similar to words reportedly found in red ink on Cho’s body, “Ismail Ax.”

In one video clip, which the NewsHour has chosen not to air, Cho spouted hatred, saying, “You had 100 billion chances and ways to have avoided today, but you decided to spill my blood. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.”

Today we spoke to students Shonte Sowards, Alyssa Tetkoski, Jessica Palazzolo and Ginny Koontz about those pictures and video. They lost their friend and sorority sister, 22-year-old Maxine Turner, from Vienna, Virginia. Her friends called her Max.

JESSICA PALAZZOLO, Virginia Tech Student: Max was the most wonderful person that I know. It’s tragic that she had to pass away, but her memory will live on forever.

ALYSSA TETKOSKI, Virginia Tech Student: The victims are what mean the most to us, in that we cared so much about and were friends with and had our classes with. I mean, they’re what I want to remember.

TOM BEARDEN: Are you worried, all of you, that if, ultimately, Virginia Tech will be known always as the place where the worst shooting in American history took place?

SHONTE SOWARDS: Yes, but I’m more concerned — and I just really feel that we’re going to be known as the school that overcame. We’re going to be known as the school that came together. We’re going to be known as the school that got together in the convocation and said, “We are Hokies.”

Police regret NBC's decision

Col. Steve Flaherty
Superintendent, Virginia State Police
Over the last news cycle, families of the victims, they have endured. The Virginia Tech family has endured. And, indeed, the world has endured a view of life that few of us should or would or should ever have to endure.

TOM BEARDEN: In this morning's news conference, law enforcement officials said they regretted NBC's decision to air the material.

COL. STEVE FLAHERTY, Superintendent, Virginia State Police: Over the last news cycle, families of the victims, they have endured. The Virginia Tech family has endured. And, indeed, the world has endured a view of life that few of us should or would or should ever have to endure.

It's a side of life that a few years ago only those who had chosen to work in a profession that's responsible for managing or mitigated crime and violence would be exposed to.

Investigators did have a chance yesterday to view the package that we received from NBC prior to it being aired nationally last night. We appreciate NBC's cooperation, and they're cooperating with all the authorities, though we're rather disappointed in the editorial decision to broadcast these disturbing images.

The victims of the family, the entire university campus, and even the international community have certainly been afflicted by these horrific events and this horrific tragedy and its intense media coverage. I'm sorry that you were all exposed to these images.

TOM BEARDEN: Last night, anchor Brian Williams explained the network's decision.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, Host, "NBC Nightly News": When the package arrived on the desk of our news division president today, the first thing we did was call federal authorities. We are sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected. And we know we are, in effect, airing the words of a murderer here tonight.

TOM BEARDEN: NBC added this today in a statement: "We believe it provides some answers to the critical question, why did this man carry out these awful murderers?" Investigators later said the package did not significantly expand the pool of evidence in the case.

COL. STEVE FLAHERTY: From this point, we probably will have very little to tell you on a daily basis from a law enforcement perspective. We certainly will come back to you when we find anything that's meaningful and we have any meaningful developments. But as a matter of daily routine, the information flow from law enforcement will probably dwindle at this particular point in time.

Cho's mental health history

Christopher Flynn
Virginia Tech Counseling Center
When they're released back in the community and we are told they are no longer a danger to self or others, we work under discrimination acts. We cannot discriminate against the mentally ill, nor do we want to.

TOM BEARDEN: Officials also spent a considerable amount of time this morning answering questions about the sharing of Cho's mental records, whether or not anything more could have done to prevent this tragedy.

Asked why the university had not followed up after Cho's hospitalization in late 2005, the director of the school's counseling center said they followed normal procedures.

CHRISTOPHER FLYNN, Director, Virginia Tech Counseling Center: When he's been hospitalized, when anyone's been hospitalized, they're not going to be released until they're deemed no longer a danger to self or others. And so, when that happens, when they are released into the community, there's no necessary notification of the university.

Many of our students -- not many, when, I say -- a number of our students are hospitalized each semester voluntarily for a range of issues, they come back to our campus. They are reintegrated in the classroom. Under the law, we have to provide services to students with mental illness; that is not grounds to exclude them from our property.

I would remind you that that procedure that took place 16 months ago was handled very appropriately by our chief of police, by all of the agencies involved, and by the treatment facility. The judgments that were made at the facilities are not our judgments.

When they're released back in the community and we are told they are no longer a danger to self or others, we work under discrimination acts. We cannot discriminate against the mentally ill, nor do we want to. We serve to educate all students of Virginia.

Counseling the grieving community

Lee Cooper
Virginia Tech Psychological Services
I would think a common feeling is, 'That could have happened to me. I'm a college student; I'm on campus; I go to classes.' Somebody walking into the class and shooting I think will be in everybody's mind for a long, long time.

TOM BEARDEN: Late today, we spoke with Dr. Harvey Barker, director of New River Valley Community Services, the agency that was part of that 2005 mental health evaluation. He spent the last several days helping families who lost loved ones cope. Barker says it has been an agonizingly difficult process.

HARVEY BARKER, New River valley Community Services: The level of grief, the grief, the level of anguish, the emotionality of hearing that your child, who is about to graduate or has a full life ahead of them, has all of a sudden been taken away, it's impossible to really describe.

TOM BEARDEN: Lee Cooper is director of the psychological services center at Virginia Tech. He says that a lot of people will suffer long-term and perhaps permanent psychological damage as a result of the murders.

LEE COOPER, Director, Virginia Tech Psychological Services Center: I would think a common feeling is, "That could have happened to me. I'm a college student; I'm on campus; I go to classes." Somebody walking into the class and shooting I think will be in everybody's mind for a long, long time.

TOM BEARDEN: Classes are scheduled to resume Monday, but the university's vice president of academic affairs said it was up to students to decide whether or not to return to campus this year. Virginia Tech will award posthumous degrees to the victims during this year's commencement ceremonies.