Witnesses Tell Virginia Tech Panel No Easy Answers to Preventing Such Tragedies

July 18, 2007 — Witnesses who addressed the panel examining the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings made it plain Wednesday that there is no easy way to prevent such tragedies.

Speaker after speaker marveled at the challenge facing the eight-member Virginia Tech Review Panel, which was convened by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and held its fourth public meeting at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

In his welcoming remarks, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III noted that the meeting’s site is part of a far-flung campus, sitting 12 miles south of its northernmost property, four miles north of its southernmost point, and a mile from the Rotunda. “It is a very, very complicated thing to imagine security in that context,” Casteen observed.

Russell Federman, director of U.Va.’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) later echoed Casteen’s remarks. Federman noted that the Virginia Tech killings resulted from a combination of the vulnerability of open-access university communities and the unpredictability of human behavior. “We have to be careful not to buy into the illusion that we can control what is uncontrollable,” he warned.

Much of the panel’s questioning of Federman focused on issues of privacy. Should mental health screening be part of the admissions process, or at least provided to a university upon enrollment? Should students be required to sign confidentiality waivers upon entering a university? When should parents be notified of their students’ mental health problems?

For the most part, Federman came down on the side of students’ right to privacy. Applicants should be admitted to a university based only upon their academic qualifications, he said, and not disqualified for having sought mental health care. Blanket waivers of confidentiality violate the spirit of informed consent, he said, and could inhibit students from being forthcoming in counseling sessions.

Federman said that he has contacted parents of students who seemed to be in imminent danger without obtaining the students’ permission. Those decisions, he said, are made on a case-by-case basis with the concurrence of others involved in the treatment.

Panel member Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania and former chief of the United States Department of Homeland Security, suggested that there be some sort of standard that required parents to be notified in serious case. “I am cautious about standards that require action,” Federman said in response, “because each case must be judged on its own merits, and each case is complex.”

Earlier, law professor Richard Bonnie, who chairs the state Commission on Mental Health Law Reform and is director of U.Va.’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, updated the panel on the commission’s activities. Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leroy Hassell charged the commission with examining the state’s mental health laws.

“In my opinion, the need for reform is irrefutable,” Bonnie said. “The only question is how sweeping that reform should be.”

Bonnie declined to discuss in detail the case of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who took 32 lives in a shooting rampage before taking his own. He did say there was a need to strengthen the process by which people are judged a threat either to themselves or others, and are ordered to seek outpatient treatment — as Cho reportedly was.

Mandatory outpatient treatment is appropriate in such cases, Bonnie said, but it “cannot be effective unless it is accompanied by adequate service.” He added that “adequate capacity is not now in place in most communities to effectively execute outpatient treatment,” Bonnie said.

Both Bonnie and Federman stressed that federal privacy laws, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Privacy and Accountability Act (HIPAA), do not prevent colleges and universities from sharing mental health treatment records with courts.

Law enforcement concerns took center stage as the meeting convened. Don Challis, chief of police at the College of William & Mary and president of the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement, presented a set of recommendations to the panel.

So-called “lockdowns” are impractical in college settings, he said. “I think we have this idea that we can hit a switch and everything is locked,” he said. “That is not the case.” Even if it were possible, there would be questions about who is locked in, who is locked out, and who would still have access to campus buildings. In Cho’s case, as a Virginia Tech student, he would likely have been allowed inside a locked-down university building.

Instead, students, faculty and staff should be directed to seek secure locations, like dorm rooms and offices. The group’s other recommendations included creating threat assessment teams to review the cases of troubled students and bolstering campus police departments with additional funds, close access to campus chief executives, and closer ties with local law enforcement agencies

The panel spent its afternoon session listening to entreaties from parents of victims, people who use mental health services, second amendment supporters and mental health professionals.

Laurie Haas, whose daughter Emily was injured in the shooting, urged the board to be thorough with its work and not be limited by an August deadline. Several parents cited privacy laws that prevented them from being more involved in their children’s lives. Haas said she had sought a mental health intervention for her daughter, only to be told that the daughter alone could initiate the process.

Catherine Read, whose stepdaughter Mary was slain during the Tech shootings, urged the commission to “take the road less traveled and take on the hard issues.” She suggested a federal commission to continue the panels’s work, make mental health services more accessible, and seek to make college a safe environment.

“Something positive has to come from this,” she said of her stepdaughter’s death.

Others noted that it was a fantasy that colleges could be made completely safe. They cited drinking incidents, automobile accidents, sexual assaults and suicides that occur among the college-aged. While some parents advocated tightening gun control laws, others advocated allowing students and faculty members with proper permits to carry concealed weapons on campus, reasoning that another armed student may have stopped Cho.

Several parents said that someone had to accept responsibility for the shootings. For instance, Dennis Bluhm, whose son Brian was a victim, said "we expect this panel to come up with responsibility and accountability for the actions on April 16 and before.”

Roger O’Dell, a Roanoke father whose son was wounded in the incident, said Virginia could become a beacon of prevention if the state would reduce the stigma of mental health care, so more people would seek treatment.

“We should all work to make the world a better place, so we need less mental health care,” he said.