Sunday, June 10, 2007
Virginia Tech panel meets Monday
Mental health issues are expected to dominate the public meeting of the panel investigating the shootings.
RICHMOND -- The gubernatorial panel investigating the Virginia Tech shootings will learn more Monday about the student gunman's encounters with the state's mental health system and gaps that may have enabled him to avoid court-ordered treatment.
The state inspector general for mental health will brief the Virginia Tech Incident Review Panel on the system's handling of Seung-Hui Cho, the 23-year-old Tech student responsible for the deadliest campus shooting rampage in U.S. history. Cho and 32 shooting victims died April 16 on the Blacksburg campus.
The review panel appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine has been asked to dig deeply into mental health issues raised by the shootings. The topic will dominate the panel's third public meeting at George Mason University in Fairfax County.
"We anticipate this will be a very productive meeting," said the panel's chairman, Gerald Massengill.
The daylong meeting is open to the public except for the panel's one-hour session with legal advisers beginning at 1 p.m. A public comment period is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m.
Cho was found to be mentally ill in December 2005 after a roommate reported that he might be suicidal. A Montgomery County special justice concluded that Cho represented a danger to himself and ordered him to receive outpatient treatment. But it is unclear whether Cho got that treatment.
State law requires regional community services boards or behavioral health authorities to set up a treatment plan. But New River Valley Community Services had no one present at Cho's commitment hearing. Agency officials said they stopped attending hearings that do not involve their clients several years ago because of budget cuts.
Massengill expects some key questions to be answered Monday by James Stewart, the state inspector general for mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse services.
"He's been working in concert with the panel," Massengill said. "His report, we think, will be compatible with what we are asking."
New River Valley Community Services was not asked to have a representative at the meeting, spokesman Mike Wade said Friday.
The panel also is scheduled to hear from Tech officials discussing faculty options for dealing with students. Provost Mark McNamee and Chris Flynn, the director of Tech's Cook Counseling Center, are two of the university officials scheduled to participate in the meeting.
The panel also will meet privately with its lawyers to discuss getting access to Cho's mental health records.
The panel learned during its May 21 meeting in Blacksburg that access to Cho's files is prohibited without a subpoena, a court order or consent from Cho's family. Kaine's panel does not have subpoena power, but Massengill raised the possibility that the Virginia State Crime Commission could subpoena the records for the panel.
Tech officials told the panel last month that privacy laws restricted the flow of information about Cho's medical and academic records prior to the shootings.
Tech President Charles Steger said he was "very concerned" about legal barriers that limit the university's ability to know about certain problems that students bring to campus.
"I think we need to revisit some of these things," Steger said. "I think this is a serious problem and an issue where just saying we don't know is not good enough."
At the urging of Kaine and Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the panel last week enlisted a private law firm to help wade through the difficult legal issues it must confront. The international law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom & Affiliates will provide free assistance to the panel.
The panel's final public meeting is scheduled for July 18 in Charlottesville. Kaine expects the group to produce recommendations in August, before state colleges begin fall semester classes.