By Brigid Schulte and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The director of the counseling center at Virginia Tech, who said he "unintentionally" took home the mental health records of Seung Hui Cho two years before Cho went on a shooting rampage that killed 32 people and injured many more, was fired from his position after an independent review of the office.
Further, court records indicate that, although Robert Miller was asked about the whereabouts of Cho's records by Virginia Tech officials shortly after the 2007 shootings, he was not interviewed by anyone else -- neither the state police who investigated the shootings nor the special panel appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
The records, which have yet to be publicly released, include standard triage forms, notes about Cho written by two doctors and a pre-doctoral student intern, a sticky note and an e-mail sent from the residential life office, Miller wrote. He said he did not change the documents in any way, nor did he intend to use them for research.
The revelation that Miller was fired came in court papers he filed recently as a result of a lawsuit against him, Virginia Tech and others by two families who lost children in the shooting. Miller said he found Cho's medical records, long thought to be lost, in his home in July while looking for documents relevant to the lawsuit.
University officials said they hoped Miller's answers would shed light on what had been the mysterious disappearance of Cho's records. "We remain deeply dismayed that these records were unavailable for such an extended period of time," Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said in a statement, "and continue our efforts to make public Mr. Cho's mental health records in hope they put to rest any questions or doubts that remain about these records."
Officials declined to elaborate on the reason for Miller's firing in 2005. Removing private medical and other student records from campus is a violation of official university policy as well as privacy laws, officials have said.
Robert Hall, an attorney representing the families of Julia Kathleen Pryde and Erin Peterson, said Miller's responses to his questions were disappointing: Miller doesn't explain why Cho's records and those of other students were in his office, given that Miller was not a treating therapist. Nor does Miller explain why he was let go.
"I still wonder why he was being relieved," Hall said. "I still wonder why, when he's notified he was to be relieved, that the Cho files and others end up on his desk."
Hall said he planned to ask for the independent consultant's review of Miller's tenure at the counseling center, as well as electronic records noting the dates and times of Cho's interaction with staff there.
Christopher Flynn, who took over as director of Cook Counseling Center after Miller was let go, said that all student records taken by Miller, including Cho's, have been returned to the counseling center. Flynn said that Miller had mental health records of "under five" other students in his personal belongings at home. "The other records he had in his possession did not influence student treatment in any way," Flynn said.
The review of Miller and the way he ran the Cook Counseling Center began Dec. 14, 2005, the day that Cho was released from a psychiatric hospital and ordered by a judge to undergo mental health treatment at the center. Cho was briefly assessed at the center and, according to Miller, was not seen there again.
Miller said he found Cho's records as well as those of other students in a manila folder "that I mistakenly packed into boxes with my personal items." The folder was stuffed in a box with diplomas, memorabilia, journals, manuscripts, books, thank-you notes, performance evaluations and annual reports.
Miller said he did not recall how many other student records were in the box. He discovered the records on the evening of July 15. "I do not recall the contents of the file besides those records pertaining to Seung-Hui Cho," Miller wrote in court papers.
According to court documents, Miller suggested that an independent consultant review operations at the center in late fall 2005. The review began Dec. 14. Within weeks, "sometime around Christmas" that year, a Virginia Tech administrator told Miller that he was to be removed from his position as director and reassigned "to some unspecific position."
Miller describes the next few months, when Cho was to have been receiving mental health treatment, as a time of uncertainty for him. "I was uncertain of my status at the Center in terms of my duties and responsibilities," Miller wrote. He took "several weeks" of leave in late January and early February. On Feb. 24, 2006, Miller said, he was given a letter directing him to leave the counseling center by March 9. From Feb. 27 until March 9, Miller said, he packed his belongings.
According to his résumé, Miller started at Cook Counseling Center in 1988 after working as a psychological examiner for Optifast, a weight-loss program. At Cook Counseling Center, he worked as a staff psychologist, director of training, associate director, then director from 2002 until 2006. He was later assigned to the Human Resources Department. He retired from there in June 2008. He lists his occupation as assistant professor of neuropsychiatry and behavioral sciences at Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg.
He turned Cho's records over to Flynn, court documents say, on July 16 in the Blacksburg Public Library parking lot.