Donald Lambro

"And people acted. Not all of them, and not all in loud and useful ways, but some who were disturbed by Cho's actions and words did what we would want them to do. They told somebody. And still, here we are. Why?" Fisher asked.

But what could have been done? Well, how is it that when he refused mental counseling, he was allowed to remain in class? Or, for that matter, remain at the university?

University officials have a responsibility to help individual students who are distressed or troubled, but they have a larger responsibility to provide a safe, secure environment for their student body and faculty. Clearly, they failed in that solemn responsibility.

If the events leading up to the slaughter at Virginia Tech sound familiar, that's because the very same thing happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., eight years ago. Two teenage killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, went on a rampage that they, too, had meticulously planned out. And, like Cho, they had left a computer and paper trail of their deadly intentions.

They "wrote school papers about their plan. They put up a Web site about it.

Harris even wrote in court documents that he was homicidal and suicidal," Fisher recounted. "People knew. Still, Columbine happened."

A special commission is being appointed by the governor to examine how the university handled all of this, what was known about Cho's past and what could have been done that might have avoided last week's massacre.

There are some basic lessons to be learned here. Disturbed students need treatment and involuntary hospitalization, if need be, not just student/teacher counseling. Teachers and college officials need to more closely assess a troubled student's past and understand the signs of depression, bipolar disorders, paranoia and homicidal rage. Excessive writings about killing people need to be taken seriously.

Teachers, counselors and students need to be encouraged to talk to school authorities and health professionals about disturbing behavior, and there must be a system in place to examine and respond to such reports.

The lesson of Columbine and Virginia Tech is that many people knew but no one acted preemptively to prevent this tragedy from occurring.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.