Tech families hope for answers

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RICHMOND (AP) — The report due out Friday on the Virginia Tech shootings must explain how a student so troubled that he terrified teachers and students slipped layers of institutional safeguards and killed 32 persons, the governor and families of the slain said.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and victims’ relatives said inconclusive findings about a shooting spree unprecedented on an American college campus won’t do.

“It should say where things went right and where things went wrong. And that’s what I expect that it will say,” Mr. Kaine said.

“I’m hoping to find that there is somebody or some entity that’s going to be held accountable for the inaction,” said Holly Sherman, the mother of slaying victim Leslie Sherman.

Mr. Kaine, who created the panel, said he expects answers on why the mental health system failed to intercept gunman Seung-hui Cho despite menacing and bizarre behavior that alarmed university faculty and police. A court even found him a danger to himself and ordered him evaluated.

There are other questions the survivors, the bereaved and those who return this month to study and teach at Tech want answered, Mrs. Sherman said.

Why did the police assume the first two students slain in a dormitory were the victims of a domestic dispute? Why was a handwritten bomb threat found in Norris Hall before 30 persons were killed there handed to a janitor and not to an authority figure? Why wasn’t the campus locked down after the first shootings? Why was Cho, who was clearly unstable, allowed to continue attending Tech?

Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said he hopes the report will provide guidance on how universities can better deal with students like Cho.

“We are not a social service agency,” he said. “We are not a psychiatric institution.”

W. Gerald Massengill, the retired head of the Virginia State Police, whom Mr. Kaine appointed to head the eight-member panel, said he knows people expect blame to be assigned.

“From where the facts have taken us, if somebody wants to take it and assign blame, then that’s up to them. We’re going to point out what was done correctly, what maybe could have been done differently — and, of course, what we think absolutely should have been done differently,” Mr. Massengill said.

From the start, Mr. Kaine kept close to the families of those killed and the survivors. For months, he said, their demand has been consistent: no whitewash, no cover-ups.

“When there’s 32 dead, one suicide, 25 or 26 injured and many dozens or hundreds traumatized, I think that presents a situation where pointing of fingers is necessary,” said Roger O’Dell, whose son Derek was shot but survived.

Some families are suspicious the report will minimize fault by the state or other institutions for fear it could provoke lawsuits.

“They’re so worried about the liability that they’re losing their focus on the prize — and the prize is the truth,” Mrs. Sherman said. “Forget the liability thing. Just tell us what we need to fix, but be specific because a broad brush is not going to help me sleep at night.”

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