Thursday, July 19, 2007
Governor's panel reconvenes
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Families of the Virginia Tech shooting victims urged a state panel Wednesday to find fault for the April 16 campus killings and issue precise recommendations for preventing similar tragedies.
Some relatives of those who were killed and injured in the shootings voiced concerns that the panel will not hold university administrators and judicial and mental health officials accountable when they produce a report for Gov. Tim Kaine next month. Kaine appointed the eight-member panel to investigate all aspects of the shootings.
"This tragedy happened on someone's watch, and someone must take responsibility and apologize," said Joseph Samaha, whose daughter Reema was one of 32 Tech students and faculty killed by gunman Seung-Hui Cho.
"I suspect this panel will recommend but not indict," Samaha said.
Wednesday's meeting at the University of Virginia was the fourth public meeting the panel has held since the shootings. It was the last scheduled meeting. Chairman Gerald Massengill said he expects the panel will hold another public meeting to go over its findings but not to gather information.
Wednesday's public comment period took up about three hours as several family members of victims urged the panel to take a hard look at who is to blame for the tragedy and encouraged an exhaustive study of the issues -- even if it meant going well beyond next month before issuing a report.
"The importance of the work you're doing cannot be measured," said Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was injured in the shootings.
Kaine's directive to receive feedback from the commission in August was designed so recommendations for campus safety could be made before the fall semester begins. But Massengill said the governor emphasized that the report be thorough and complete, above all else.
He said the panel will produce a "comprehensive" report and will heed Kaine's call to examine all aspects of the shootings, including decisions made by Tech officials.
"I'm sure that this panel is not going to please everyone," Massengill said. "But we take the charge the governor gave us very seriously."
Dennis Bluhm, who lost his son Brian on April 16, was the most critical of the university Wednesday.
"The top administration has been cruel to us and they just want it to go back to normal," he said. "The administration does not effectively communicate, they have not admitted any wrong and hide behind the privacy acts."
Holly Adams-Sherman, one of the most outspoken family members since the shootings, didn't speak during the public comment period. But she did talk to several media members Wednesday about her frustrations with the panel. She said she has been left in the dark on several subjects and, as an example, said she learned just Tuesday that Cho had sent a letter to Tech's English department the morning of the shootings.
State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Wednesday that the letter contained no direct threats or "revelation of motive for the shootings." Cho sent it about the same time he sent a package of photos, writings and videos to NBC. It was received later that week and turned over to investigators.
"Basically the contents of the letter were incoherent ramblings," Geller said.
The calls for more accountability came after broad-based testimony from law enforcement officials and mental health experts Wednesday morning. They dispelled beliefs that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prevented the sharing of information and rejected arguments that allowing more people to carry guns on campus would prevent future tragedies.
Don Challis, the chairman of the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, told the panel that safety would be compromised if students and faculty were allowed to carry guns on campus.
Challis, police chief at the College of William and Mary, said easing restrictions on firearms could create greater dangers on campus. In an active shooting incident, Challis said, "anyone with a weapon would be identified as hostile."
He also pointed out that the high incidence of drinking and theft of student possessions enhances the danger of guns on college campuses.
Tech student and gun rights advocate Kenneth Miller told the panel that Tech's campus gun ban "didn't save us on April 16th." He said campus police did all they could, but officers "cannot be everywhere and can't respond as fast as a killer can strike down victims."
The panel will include a chapter on firearms laws in its final report to Kaine next month, a staff consultant said. Other chapters will examine Cho's mental health history, the decisions of Tech police and administrators, the police and emergency response at Norris Hall, and the overall response to the aftermath of the shootings.
Adams-Sherman said a section of that specifically addressing accountability is needed because while broad-based ideas might prevent future tragedies, it's too late to fix her problem.
"My problem is that my daughter's dead," she said. "I want to know why."
Staff writer Shawna Morrison contributed to this report.