Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gov. Kaine: Tech panel won't reconvene

A number of victims of the 2007 shootings and their families are asking for the panel to meet again, in light of recently discovered documents about the shooter.

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Gov. Tim Kaine said Tuesday that he will reopen "the factual narrative" portion of the state report into the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech, but he is not inclined to reconvene the investigative panel that produced it.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, 62 victims and family members of victims asked Kaine to reconvene the panel, in light of the recent discovery of mental health records of Seung-Hui Cho, to produce "an accurate, complete and thorough accounting of what happened before, during and after April 16th, 2007."

Robert Miller, former director of Tech's Cook Counseling Center, turned the records over to the university two weeks ago, more than two years after the shootings. Cho killed 32 faculty and students and himself about 14 months after Miller says he took the files from the center.

"We cannot comprehend that Dr. Miller, knowing the intensity of the search for these records, did not recall taking files home with him in 2006 when he left the Cook Counseling Center," the statement says.

The recovered files are expected to contain full details of Cho's interaction with counseling staff. They have not been released to the public, though Kaine said last week that he intends to have them added to the public archive of documents related to the tragedy.

State officials are talking with Cho's estate about releasing the records, Kaine said Tuesday. State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said police continue to investigate the removal of Cho's file from the counseling center. She estimated that the records amount to "a little bit more than 10 pages" of material.

The governor commissioned the panel shortly after the shootings and it produced a report four months later criticizing internal communication at the university, the handling of Cho leading up to the shootings and decisions made in between the two rounds of shootings on April 16.

But families have been asking for changes and additions to be made to the document since September 2007, a month after it was released.

Lori Haas, whose daughter was wounded on April 16, said family members have concerns that other universities are relying on the report to make decisions about campus safety.

"You shouldn't be using it as your bible and people are," she said.

In an appearance on Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP, Kaine said the professional staff who worked with the panel will compile new information from Cho's counseling file and any additional facts that surface in connection with the shootings.

Haas said that's not good enough.

"They were the experts that Gov. Kaine chose himself and in light of new information they deserve the opportunity to ask new questions," she said of the panel members. "A review process by staff just doesn't cut it with the critical nature of this."

Haas said she does not know what information the recently discovered records contain.

Holly Adams Sherman, whose daughter was killed in the shootings, said she did not sign the statement because she does not think the report would be changed significantly by new information that has come to light since it was released.

She also is doubtful that the information in Cho's files will significantly change the report. She said the reconvening of the panel would be "picking a little bit of the scab."

"We don't need to live through another investigative, fact-finding body," she said.

Sherman added that she is trying to focus on her family and her remaining daughter.

"All this is going to do is prolong the hurt. At least for people like me," she said. "It just hurts too damn much."

The families and victims thanked the panel for its work in the statement but believe the time constraints, new information and erroneous information given to the panel in the months after the shootings call for it to be revisited. The statement also questions why Miller was not interviewed by the panel.

"The document they produced was great at the time ... but they were not given all the information," said Andy Goddard, a signatory of the statement whose son was wounded in the shootings.

Panel chairman Gerald Massengill did not return calls Tuesday about the families' request to reconvene the group.

Tech released a statement attributed to spokesman Larry Hincker that said the decision to involve the state panel to further investigate the shootings belongs to the governor.

"At this point, the only new information is the discovery of the counseling center records," the statement read.

"We believe that their contents should drive a decision. It is for that reason that we strongly urge the Cho estate to approve release of the files."

Tech President Charles Steger released a statement Tuesday to university employees reiterating the university's desire to publicly release Cho's files.

Kaine said Tuesday that Cho's records should not have been removed from the center -- "I am sure that is not lawfully permitted."

Kaine said the contents of the file will be carefully examined and that his office has set up an internal process to review suggested corrections and make changes where warranted.

The statement repeats past sentiments from family members that the report has value as both an official account of the shootings as well as a tool to help others prevent similar tragedies.

"We consider the panel's report extremely valuable, and we cannot accept that the Commonwealth allows it to stand with any errors of any kind," the statement said.

greg.esposito@roanoke.com 381-1675

mike.sluss@roanoke.com (804) 697-1585

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