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Learning from the Past

Seung-Hui Cho's brutal murder of 32 teachers and professors on Virginias Tech's campus in southwest Virginia raised several concerns for Michael Spak, a former Marine who worked abroad for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Spak worried that Virginia's General Assembly or the federal government might pass "knee-jerk legislation" without considering the consequences.

A Vietnam veteran and president of a defense consulting firm, Spak found some proposed gun restrictions might prohibit veterans who are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from owning firearms troubling, he said. He is not the only one with such concerns.

"A lot of returning veterans work in law enforcement or go back overseas as contractors. Not being able to carry a weapon could really affect people's livelihood," said Steve Collins of Black Ice Security.

Collins, Spak and others got the chance to address some of their questions to Col. Gerald Massengill, chairman of Gov. Tim Kaine's Virginia Tech Review Panel, at the Loudoun Crime Commission's Oct. 19 meeting.

Founder and chairman of the commission, Spak said he had invited Massengill to come speak to the group of public safety advocates because of such concerns.

"I worry that what we all feel now will go away with the passage of time," said Spak.

MASSENGILL, whose panel released its full report on the tragedy in August, said it is unlikely the new legislation or Kaine's executive order, which was released days after the incident in April, would effect returning veterans.

Both the governor's order and proposed legislation seek to prohibit only Virginia residents who have been adjudicated and legally forced into inpatient care for mental illness. Those who suffer temporarily from mental illness, like soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, would not be likely to fall into this category, said Massengill.

"Most police officers do have [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] at some point. I have known many troopers who had to have psychiatric care," said Massengill, retired state police superintendent of Virginia.

Spak and several other of the 100 people who had shown up in the middle of the day to see Massengill talk said they also wondered why none of the students attacked or charged Cho.

The Virginia Tech Panel's report mentions only one person — engineering professor and Holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu — attempting to stop Cho. Librescu died trying to keeping Cho from entering his classroom while he students escaped out a window.

Another classroom of students escaped Cho by lying flat on the ground and putting their feet up against the classroom door to keep him from entering. Because they were on the ground, bullets that passed through the classroom door missed them, said Massengill.

But accounts of the incident do not depict students as being aggressive and Massengill said the only students to survive the shooting, which took place in under 10 minutes, escaped Cho by playing dead. Everyone who was inside a classroom he entered was shot at least once, he added.

"One young man had been shot four times. When Cho was out of the room, he pulled his dead desk mate on top of him. When Cho came back into the room, he pumped more rounds in the body of dead classmate. If there was any movement, he would just shoot them," said Massengill.

Spak and others said they think this is a reflection on American primary and secondary education.

"TEACHERS have taught students to avoid confrontation at all costs. What worries me is that we have not conditioned boys and girls to go down fighting," said Spak.

Massengill said he had similar thoughts until he actually saw the classrooms where Cho had killed the students. He said the former Secretary of Homeland Security, also a member of the panel, called the classrooms a "shooting gallery" when he first saw one.

None of the second-floor rooms had another door and only one had a window, which students could escape out of. The rooms' doors also had no locks, he said.

"I had questions about why they didn't go somewhere else. I didn't understand there was nowhere else to go," said Massengill.

Colleges and universities need to take public safety into account when they design buildings in the future, said the panel chairman.

The review panel has also recommended that Virginia Tech and other schools consider putting locks that can be activated on the inside on all of the building's doors, he said.

"The one thing that saved lives was playing dead. In times of lull when he was reloading, maybe someone could have jumped him. ... But almost everyone was shot," said Massengill, who said Cho entered every single classroom twice in the eight-minute attack.

THE REVIEW PANEL'S other suggestions included establishing a mental-health assessment team that includes professionals at all college, universities and secondary schools. Cho had come before Virginia Tech's "Care Team" more than once for inappropriate behavior including the harassment of female students, but no one on the team had training to deal with mental illness.

Loudoun County Public Schools already has multidisciplinary threat assessment teams at all secondary schools, said Robert Burke, the school system's head of safety and security.

Each team includes a mental-health professional, nurse and school resource officer, said Burke.