Panel Faces Ob­sta­cles In Va. Tech In­ves­ti­ga­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By Tim Craig

RICH­MOND — As the na­tion looks to Gov. Ti­mothy M. Kaine’s com­mis­sion to an­swer ques­tions raised by the April 16 mas­sacre at Vir­ginia Tech, the panel could face lim­its on its author­ity that would hin­der its abil­ity to an­swer key ques­tions about the tragedy.

Un­like a court or a con­gres­sional in­quiry, panel mem­bers said they will not have the power to sub­poena peo­ple to give tes­ti­mony. Be­cause of laws pro­tect­ing pri­vacy, the com­mis­sion is not sure how deeply it can probe Se­ung Hui Cho’s men­tal con­di­tion in the months lead­ing up to the ram­page that left Cho and 32 of his vic­tims dead.

Com­mis­sion mem­bers also want to hear from Cho’s par­ents and sis­ter, al­though they can’t com­pel them to talk. And the panel is try­ing to fig­ure out what ev­i­dence state po­lice can turn over to them.

Philip S. Schaen­man, the com­mis­sion’s staff di­rec­tor, said the eight-mem­ber panel might have to seek a se­ries of le­gal opin­ions to help fo­cus the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and de­ter­mine what in­for­ma­tion it can re­view. The first meet­ing could be next week.

“The men­tal is­sues will def­i­nitely be on the agenda, but how far you go hasn’t been de­cided,” said Schaen­man, pres­i­dent of TriData Corp., an Ar­ling­ton County com­pany that is staffing the com­mis­sion.

The un­cer­tainty comes as Kaine and cam­pus of­fi­cials across the coun­try are rais­ing the stakes on the panel’s find­ings. Kaine has been telling au­di­ences the panel’s rec­om­men­da­tion will in­flu­ence his poli­cies on gun con­trol, cam­pus safety and men­tal health ser­vices.

“This com­mis­sion can make a huge im­pact and do enor­mous good and save lives if they do it right,” said for­mer New Jer­sey gov­er­nor Thomas H. Kean (R), who headed the com­mis­sion that spent two years in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks.

Re­tired Vir­ginia State Po­lice su­per­in­ten­dent W. Ger­ald Mas­sen­gill, who over­saw the in­quiry into Vir­ginia’s re­sponse to the Wash­ing­ton area sniper shoot­ings in 2002, is chair­man of the Vir­ginia Tech panel. The panel in­cludes spe­cial­ists in psy­chol­ogy, law, foren­sics and higher ed­u­ca­tion as well as for­mer U.S. home­land se­cu­rity di­rec­tor Tom Ridge.

Mas­sen­gill said he wants the panel to con­duct “a case study into ev­ery­thing that has hap­pened. All the ar­eas that this tragedy touched, we have the ex­per­tise to look at.”

Al­though the com­mis­sion will not es­tab­lish goals un­til its first meet­ing, sev­eral panel mem­bers said they want a few key ques­tions an­swered, in­clud­ing how Cho ac­quired his weapons and why the cam­pus was not locked down dur­ing the 21⁄ hour lull in the ram­page.

2 Cho’s men­tal state and the health ser­vices he re­ceived from the state or univer­sity should be scru­ti­nized, Kaine and com­mis­sion mem­bers said.

“As we look at this en­tire in­ci­dent, I think this is go­ing to be the most im­por­tant piece, know­ing his en­tire men­tal health his­tory,” Kaine said in a ra­dio in­ter­view this week. “I think we are go­ing to learn about the men­tal health sys­tem and gaps in the men­tal health sys­tem.”

In 2005, Vir­ginia Tech of­fi­cials re­ferred Cho to a psy­chi­atric hospi­tal for eval­u­a­tion af­ter he hinted at sui­cide. There he was as­sessed as men­tally ill but was re­leased be­cause he was deemed not to be an im­mi­nent dan­ger to him­self or oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

Po­lice vis­ited New River Com­mu­nity Ser­vices in Blacks­burg af­ter the shoot­ings to search for Cho’s med­i­cal records, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

Last year, Vir­ginia Chief Jus­tice Leroy R. Has­sell Sr. cre­ated the Men­tal Health Law Re­form Com­mis­sion to study the state’s men­tal health sys­tem, in­clud­ing cri­te­ria for plac­ing some­one in emer­gency treat­ment, which re­quire that per­son to be an im­mi­nent dan­ger to him­self or oth­ers. The com­mis­sion is not sup­posed to fin­ish its work un­til next sum­mer. The staff di­rec­tor said the Vir­ginia Tech panel could pro­vide valu­able in­for­ma­tion.

Even though Vir­ginia Tech of­fi­cials and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials have pledged to co­op­er­ate with Kaine’s com­mis­sion, it re­mains un­clear whether Cho’s med­i­cal and aca­demic records can be viewed by the panel.

“At this point, I have been given no in­for­ma­tion as to what power we will have and what in­for­ma­tion we will be given,” said Diane M. Strick­land, a com­mis­sion mem­ber and for­mer cir­cuit court judge in Roanoke who wants the panel to study the in­ter­face be­tween the men­tal health and crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tems.

Un­der Vir­ginia law, po­lice agen­cies are not sup­posed to re­lease a vic­tim’s med­i­cal and fi­nan­cial records. Po­lice can also with­hold de­tails of their tac­ti­cal plans and are not re­quired to re­lease in­for­ma­tion in­volv­ing their in­ter­ac­tion with Vir­ginia Tech’s po­lice force, whose of­fi­cers were the ini­tial re­spon­ders at the two shoot­ing sites. Fed­eral law pro­hibits Vir­ginia Tech from re­leas­ing Cho’s aca­demic records with­out his par­ents’ per­mis­sion.

Mas­sen­gill said the com­mis­sion prob­a­bly will ask Cho’s par­ents, who left their Cen­tre­ville home the day of the shoot­ing, to co­op­er­ate. “I think un­til you sit down and talk to them, it is re­ally un­known what is­sues, what con­cerns they have, re­gard­ing the prob­lem all of us know this young man had,” Mas­sen­gill said.

For­mer con­gress­man Lee Hamil­ton, pres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars, who has served on nu­mer­ous gov­ern­ment com­mis­sions, said the Vir­ginia Tech panel needs to have broad ac­cess.

“If there is a sense they are not talk­ing to the right peo­ple or see­ing the right doc­u­ments, it will lessen the im­pact of the com­mis­sion,” Hamil­ton said.

Robin Hat­ter­s­ley Gray, ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of Cam­pus Safety Mag­a­zine, said the panel’s re­view gives col­leges a ma­jor op­por­tu­nity to ad­just their se­cu­rity and men­tal health pro­ce­dures.

“Af­ter Columbine, K-12th-grade cam­puses have got­ten a lot bet­ter at rec­og­niz­ing stu­dents who may be prone to vi­o­lent be­hav­ior be­fore they carry out the events, and it is my hope the Vir­ginia Tech in­ci­dent will do the same thing by help­ing col­leges de­velop bet­ter intelligence gath­er­ing,” Gray said.

Kean, a for­mer pres­i­dent of Drew Univer­sity in Madi­son, N.J., said the panel could help es­tab­lish guide­lines for col­leges to deal with emo­tion­ally dis­turbed stu­dents.

“Univer­si­ties need to un­der­stand ways to make in­ter­ven­tion not only pos­si­ble but man­dated,” Kean said.

But Gor­don Davies, a mem­ber of the Vir­ginia Tech com­mis­sion who was a past di­rec­tor of the State Coun­cil of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion for Vir­ginia, said the panel will need to tread lightly while con­sid­er­ing rec­om­men­da­tions on deal­ing with stu­dents sus­pected of hav­ing emo­tional prob­lems.

He re­ferred to a bi­og­ra­phy he read about Al­bert Ein­stein. “He was a pretty strange guy, but you would not want to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment in which you would not ac­cept Al­bert Ein­stein as a stu­dent be­cause he is a bit odd,” Davies said.

But the panel has to es­tab­lish re­al­is­tic goals about what it can ac­com­plish this sum­mer. Be­sides pro­vid­ing rec­om­men­da­tions for col­leges this fall, Kaine said he wants to make sure the Gen­eral As­sem­bly has time to re­view the re­port be­fore the leg­isla­tive ses­sion be­gins in Jan­uary.

Kean said he thinks the Vir­ginia Tech panel is “go­ing to need more time.”

“Don’t trade off try­ing to get it through quickly by sac­ri­fic­ing the kind of rec­om­men­da­tions that are in­tel­li­gent, long-last­ing and well-thought-out, so they can ben­e­fit ev­ery col­lege in the coun­try,” he said.

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