By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Authorities' abilities to identify potentially dangerous mentally ill people are crippled across the nation by the same kinds of conflicts in privacy laws that prevented state officials from being able to intervene before Seung Hui Cho went on his rampage at Virginia Tech, according to a federal report commissioned after the Blacksburg shootings that was presented to President Bush yesterday.
Because school administrators, doctors and police officials rarely share information about students and others who have mental illnesses, troubled people don't get the counseling they need, and authorities are often unable to prevent them from buying handguns, the report says.
The report was released on the day that the House of Representatives passed a bill designed to make it more difficult for people with mental health problems, such as Cho, to buy firearms.
Lawmakers said the measure, the first major gun-control legislation since 1994, would improve the national gun background check system by requiring states to report their list of mentally ill people who are prohibited from buying firearms to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Cho, who killed 32 students and faculty members April 16 before turning a gun on himself, had been deemed mentally ill and a danger to himself in December 2005, but that information was not available in the computer systems used by the outlets that sold him guns.
The Democrat-backed legislation was crafted in coordination with the National Rifle Association, increasing its chances of becoming law, lawmakers said yesterday.
The federal report released yesterday was commissioned by Bush, who ordered Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to meet with school officials, mental health experts and local leaders in 12 states to figure out how to better address some of the issues raised by the Virginia Tech case.
The report found that teachers and school administrators fear they might be breaking the law if they share student information. In many cases, the report said, officials have more power to share information than they realize.
"One of the most important things we found is that many of the obstacles are perceived," Leavitt said. "People don't understand what they can share and what they can't share and that we need to do a much better job educating educators, the mental health community and law enforcement that they can, in fact, share information when a person's safety or a community's safety is in fact potentially endangered."
In a statement, Bush said that record-sharing among officials in health care, law enforcement and other areas "must improve."
Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said that "based on my quick review, the report unearthed the deep complexities of the issues facing college campuses today. We believe that this will further inform the national and our state discussion on the nexus between societal safety and personal freedoms."
One of the nation's leading advocacy groups for the mentally ill said that the report doesn't reveal anything that wasn't already known and that it ignores the need for more funding for people with mental health problems.
"We don't need any more commissions or task forces. We know what to do," said Michael J. Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, based in Arlington. "The president's task force report is a disappointment. It repeats much of what we have known for years. It talks about encouraging people to get help when they need it -- when the real problem is that help often is not available."
Others said that the report heightens concerns about how to protect the privacy rights of those who are deemed mentally ill while giving family members access to pertinent information.
"It's becoming a bigger and bigger issue," said Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington. "There are a lot of families getting frustrated."
In addition to making suggestions on mental health issues, the report also recommends that schools develop procedures for quickly notifying students when emergencies occur.
Virginia Tech officials waited more than two hours to alert the more than 25,000 students that two students had been fatally shot that morning. By then, Cho was in another campus building, where he killed 30 more people.
The report and gun-control legislation come as Virginia conducts its own investigation into the shooting. Relatives of shooting victims have raised concerns about that investigation, saying that they should be represented on a state panel.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said yesterday that he had been in regular contact with many family members since early May and had offered to put them in touch with the panel.
"I really felt that in my dialogue with family members, I had connected everybody who wanted to be connected with the panel," Kaine said.
Kaine said he didn't think it would be appropriate to name a relative to the panel. "I kind of view the panel in a way kind of almost like a jury. They are sitting in judgment, and it is a tradition in juries -- folks with a direct connection to the event are not on the jury," said Kaine, noting that there is no Virginia Tech representative on the panel.
Staff writers Tim Craig and Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.