Blacksburg, Va. – The Virginia Tech student who killed 32 people and himself on campus in April had been treated in high school for a mental disorder that left him unable to speak in public, but the university was never told about the condition, according to newspaper reports.
A Fairfax County school had developed a detailed special education plan that excused Seung-Hui Cho from class participation to ease his fears so he might begin to talk more openly, The Washington Post reported on Monday, citing an anonymous source.
The disorder, called selective mutism, could explain why Cho was a loner during his four years at Tech, remaining a mystery even to his roommates. Professors have said he would not answer when called on in class.
"Think of the image of the little kid at the end of the diving board, just frozen. They can't move no matter how much we tell them to jump," Robert Schum, a clinical psychologist and expert in selective mutism, told the Post. "In a classroom, they feel threatened. They're trapped. And the more people push, the more it exacerbates the anxiety."
Unless Cho himself had disclosed the disorder, first reported by The Wall Street Journal last week, privacy laws would deny the university access to information about his therapy.
"We did not have any of that information," university President Charles Steger told The Associated Press. "The information that we seek for admissions, other than did you get your measles shot or whatever, is the academic record."
Fairfax spokesman Paul Regnier said privacy laws prevented him from discussing Cho's activity in the school system.
However, Cho's family gave the school system permission to provide the material only to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's investigative panel, which is expected to report its findings Thursday.
Jerome Niles, a retired dean who chaired a university committee that reviewed the relationships between Tech's counseling services and other agencies, said Tech has many services available to help students, but they're not useful unless officials know of the need for them.
"We cannot be responsive unless we're informed," he said.
While schools try to help students become independent, the connections with their families also should be examined, Niles said.
Steger said university officials want to look into whether more information could be shared about students applying for admission.
"To me this is one of the serious public policy questions that comes out of this whole thing," he said. "I suspect we need more information than we're getting. How much more is appropriate, I don't really know."