Quiet killer

Years before he murdered students and professors at Virginia Tech, Cho Seung-hui was diagnosed with “selective mutism” — he could talk but chose not to — in high school. His special education category was “emotionally disturbed.” He got 50 minutes a month of speech and language therapy, reports the Wall Street Journal. Teachers were told not to push him to talk.

(Cho) was largely excused from making oral presentations and answering teachers’ questions in class; oral participation was de-emphasized in his grading. Aided by such “accommodations,” or efforts to compensate for his disability, he achieved A’s and B’s in regular and Advanced Placement courses and was admitted to Virginia Tech.

Details of Mr. Cho’s experience in special education, which are only now coming to light, suggest that high schools may be paying too much attention to the academic advancement of bright but troubled students and not enough to their emotional disorders.

It’s hard to see what a school can do for someone as deeply disturbed as Cho. His silence, which started at a young age, wasn’t a question of not speaking English; he didn’t talk to his family at home either. His parents took him to doctors; in high school, they sent him to a counselor. If his parents couldn’t help him, why should we blame his teachers?

Update: In Time, a psychologist suggests that “cynical shyness” leads to rage and murder. I think “cynical shyness” is shyness that leads to rage and murder, as opposed to regular old shyness, which doesn’t.

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  1. Mandatory attendance requires that the whole kid to show up, not just the part that’s going to be educated. That certainly suggests an ethical duty to take responsibility for more then just education, provided there’s any responsibility to educate of course.

  2. I think Joanne’s point is that the school did try to take responsibility for the whole student, but with its limited resources was unable to make headway. As there are others who had more influence and also failed to reach the boy, the teachers cannot be blamed for being unable to prevent the massacre.

  3. 50 minutes of speech/language therapy per month?

    Sorry folks, that’s a *minimal* intervention for a kid with emotional disturbance. That’s less than 15 minutes per week of direct intervention. The combination of selective mutism and emotional disturbance suggests that the district knew there was much more going on, but because he was bright, they went with accommodations instead of dealing with the emotional issues.

    Yes, there’s things you can do even in high school. As a special ed teacher myself, I look at that particular service package combined with that diagnosis and shake my head. I’ve worked with a kid with selective mutism, who wasn’t emotionally disturbed.

    50 minutes a month is *nothing.*

  4. Anonymous says:

    Will the Washington Post run a correction to its front page story claiming Cho had autism?

    How did they make such a big mistake?

    It seems as if Cho’s great aunt Kim in South Korea, who hadn’t seen Cho since he was eight years old, heard the word ‘japyejeung’ (autism) in a December 2006 telephone call from Cho’s mother. The word ‘japyejeung’ is relatively new in the Korean language, having been popularized by a 2005 film called ‘Marathon’, about a young man with autism who runs long-distance races…

    And that was it — a single word in a telephone call was conflated with a “diagnosis” of “autism” when Cho was eight and left for America. And the Huffington Post started excoriating parents of autistic children for being in ‘denial’ about Cho…

  5. Robert Wright says:

    Selective Mutism?

    Years ago I had a boy in my English who probably had that.

    None of his friends ever heard him talk and they just got used to it.

    Yes, he had friends. He was a good listener and whenever somebody suggested an activity, he’d go along with it.

    He was an A student and very good at drawing.

    I made it a point not to call on him to read because I didn’t know what would happen. But one day, I did it anyway.

    He read the paragraph in a fine, clear voice and everybody’s jaws dropped. Nobody had ever heard him speak.

    But the strange thing is, it wasn’t met with applause. Nobody seemed to like hearing him talk. It was too out of character.

    So, I didn’t call on him for the rest of year and nobody heard him talk again.

  6. anonymous says:

    I am a school psychologist and work in one of Virginia’s school systems. From what I know about selective mutism, it would not have caused him to murder so many people in cold blood. There had to be more to it than just selective mutism.

    As far as the IEP in high school goes…Selective mutism does not imply that he was of subaverage intelligence or had a learning disability. Usually, selective mutes are quite intelligent. I’m sure he had to display his knowledge of the material in other ways if he was not required to respond orally in class. This is an acceptable accommodation for students with special needs. He deserved to be at VA Tech just as much as anyone else, IEP or no IEP.

    I don’t think that the school system overlooked the problem, or did not worry about educating the “whole” person. The general goal of special education is to include those with special needs in the general education programs and accommodate them so they can graduate from high school and potentially go to college and get a job. Research shows that placing students in special classes out of the mainstream is actually detrimental to the student in the long run, especially those with emotional disturbances. Those students need appropriate modeling from their peers to improve. They also need exposure to everyday situations so they can learn to cope with them. I think the school system actually accomplished something when Cho graduated from high school with honors and was accepted to VA Tech, that’s the ultimate goal.

    As far as his services go, in my opinion, he should not have even received speech/language services. Selective Mutism is not a speech or a language disorder. It has already been said that selective mutism means he chose not to speak not that he was physically unable to speak or did not have the language skills to do so effectively. The school system could have provided counseling services to supplement what the parents were providing for him but there was no way to know something like this would have, or could have happened. Selective mutism is more like an anxiety disorder the only thing they really could have done was teach him how to overcome his anxiety. Whether he learned to overcome it, or not was up to him, not the schools.

    I think when a tragedy like this occurs, everyone scurries around and tries to find something to explain it, some kind of sign, or something that would have cued people in that it was going to happen. Things like this will never make sense. I think we’re barking up the wrong tree trying to say he did it because he was a selective mute.

    By the way, Autism would not have caused it to happen either.

  7. To Anonymous School Psychologist in Virginia:

    Selective Mutism IS a very real anxiety disorder that is misunderstood, mistreated and often misdiagnosed. You are correct that not requiring oral responses can be an appropriate accomodation for a child with selective mutism. However, it should only be part of a plan that helps a child progress from non verbal to verbal communication. A child with selective mutism literally cannot speak in certain social settings. It is NOT a choice or a refusal to speak. Often children with this disorder are seen as oppositional, controlling or defiant. In reality, they become so anxious they cannot speak. With proper early intervention there is great success. Without proper treatment there are many potential repercussions….worsening anxiety, depression, social anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Please see the following websites for more information:



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