Families of Tech victims speak out

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Relatives of several victims of the Virginia Tech shootings yesterday pleaded with a panel investigating the killings to assign accountability for the tragedy and issue tough recommendations to help prevent similar disasters.

“We expect this panel to come up with responsibility and accountability for the actions on April 16 and before,” said Dennis Bluhm, whose son Brian was killed by gunman Seung-hui Cho. “We are concerned that your panel will come up with some well-thought-out recommendations for the future, but not the reasons behind April 16 and the mistakes made over the years.”

The families spoke out during the final public meeting of a governor’s panel assigned to review the shootings. The eight-member panel is expected to issue a report with wide-ranging recommendations next month.

Panel Chairman Gerald Massengill offered assurances that the final report will be hard-hitting. But some of the relatives said they were worried the panel would not assign responsibility for the tragedy.

“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 survived despite being shot. “What has happened necessitates pointing fingers and taking heat.”

Through tears, Cathy Read, whose daughter Mary Karen Read was killed, asked the panel to make actionable recommendations in its report on patient privacy laws, mental health care, gun availability and the safety of students at universities.

“I worry that the review panel will take a narrow view of the events related to April 16 and miss the broader opportunity to make something good come out of the evil of that day,” Mrs. Read said as her husband, Peter, stood by her side. “So I ask you, take the road less traveled and decide to address the hard issues.”

The panel’s staff director, Phil Schaenman, outlined what the report will include: a detailed timeline of events, university security issues, Cho’s mental health history, counseling treatment and legal issues, gun access and gun-purchase laws, and the police and university’s actions related to both sets of shootings on April 16. The report also will include a section on the aftermath of the tragedy and how the university and state reacted.

Some victims’ family members touched on specific issues they want the panel to address, such as why Virginia Tech did not immediately alert the campus community after Cho killed two students inside a dormitory. The school sent a mass e-mail about two hours later, advising the community of the shootings and urging caution. About 20 minutes later, Cho began shooting inside Norris Hall, where he killed 30 persons before committing suicide.

“Why was an e-mail not sent when the first shooting occurred?” asked Patrick Strollo, whose daughter Hilary was injured during the attack. “That is troubling.”

Questions about whether the university should have issued a lockdown order after the first shooting also were raised.

Don Challis, president of the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and police chief of the College of William & Mary, told the panel that the size and layout of most campuses make lockdowns an unrealistic option. Instead, he said universities should advise faculty, staff and students to find a secure location such as their room or office during an emergency.

But at least two parents disagreed with that opinion.

“The president didn’t follow the actions he took in the past and set a precedent with — cancel classes and close the campus as soon as something major happens,” Mr. Bluhm told the panel. “We believe two homicides is major.”

Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie was killed, also criticized the university’s response.

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