The 'Toll Would Have Been Less'

By Tim Craig and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 31, 2007

RICHMOND, Aug. 30 -- The communications breakdowns, gaps in the mental health system and confusion over student privacy laws that were identified as problems by the panel that investigated the massacre at Virginia Tech might take years to correct and require action by the federal government, panel members said Thursday.

The long-awaited panel report, released late Wednesday, concluded that Virginia Tech officials could have saved lives by warning students earlier that two students had been shot and that the killer had not been caught. It also said that a judge ordered Seung Hui Cho to be treated for mental health issues but that he never received it.

A large segment of the report focuses on federal privacy laws designed to protect sensitive information about students. Mental health officials are so worried about following those laws that they often withhold information that can legally be shared with others, the panel concluded. Even the doctors treating killer Cho's mental illness didn't have all the facts about him.

"Many people became aware of Cho's difficulties: students, parents, resident assistants, teachers, administrators, the Tech police department and counselors," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said of Cho, who killed 32 people and himself April 16. "But there was not an effective mechanism for compiling information and taking action, either to intervene in an effective way or even to contact Cho's family." Kaine appointed the panel and asked for the review.

Cho's rampage -- the worst mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history -- was probably unavoidable, the panel concluded. But government agencies and other institutions should have done more to respond to his illness and rage, the report said.

Virginia's mental health system was ill-equipped, the report said, to treat Cho, a loner who as a toddler didn't like to talk or be touched.

The eight-member panel, which included former U.S. homeland security secretary Tom Ridge, was backed by a team of investigators who fanned out across the country to gather information related to the massacre over the past four months. The report outlined 13 recommendations for reforming the state's mental health system, including changing the criteria for involuntary commitments and increasing the number of beds available to patients at crisis stabilization centers.

The report did not estimate how much money would be needed to improve mental health services in Virginia, but W. Gerald Massengill, chairman of the panel, said the state does not have the money to "get the job done."

"I think the one thing that caught the panel by surprise was the magnitude of the problems today in our mental health system," Massengill said in an interview. "This is an issue that has national implications, because this is not a problem unique to Virginia."

The report outlined almost a dozen examples in which better communication might have averted some bloodshed. Communication lapses existed between Cho's high school and college officials, his doctors and Virginia Tech officials, and the students and faculty members on campus the morning of the shootings. Cho attended Westfield High School in Chantilly.

Kaine, who commissioned the panel three days after Cho's rampage, said Thursday that the report should be a wake-up call for governments and colleges across the country. Kaine vowed to spend his remaining 2 1/2 years in office "fixing problems" instead of "assessing blame."

But Kaine will probably continued to be dogged with questions about whether Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger or other university officials should be fired.

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