- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2007

RICHMOND — The father of one of the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings asked a legislative committee yesterday to close legal loopholes that allowed a student to skirt the state’s mental health system before killing 27 students, five faculty members and himself.

“The issues of mental-health-care-related loopholes in the mental health system and in Virginia’s gun laws are complex, multifaceted and interrelated,” Joseph Samaha, father of slain student Reema Samaha, told the state House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee.

“More sensible gun legislation must be passed in coordination with the mental health issues this panel will address,” Mr. Samaha said. “It’s time that you become responsive and proactive, not reactive, on legislation that will close the loopholes.”

The committee is the latest of several government groups to scrutinize Virginia’s mental health system in the aftermath of the April 16 shootings.

Gunman Seung-hui Cho was involuntarily sent to Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Center near Radford for an overnight stay and mental evaluation in December 2005 after police received a report that he was suicidal. A special justice found him to be a danger to himself — but not to others — and ordered him to receive outpatient treatment.

After a nearly 15-hour stay at St. Albans, Cho made an appointment with Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center — but there is no indication that he received the treatment.

Last week, members of a governor’s panel studying the killings obtained Cho’s university mental health records after weeks of negotiation with his family.

In April, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine signed an executive order intended to close the loophole that allowed Cho to purchase the guns he used. Mr. Kaine’s order compels anyone ordered by a court to get mental health treatment be added to a state police database of people barred from buying guns.

Before that, only people who were committed to inpatient mental hospitals were entered into the database that licensed firearms dealers use to run instant background checks on prospective buyers.

Gun and mental health legislation will dominate the 2008 General Assembly in January as a result of the Virginia Tech shootings. The committee Mr. Samaha addressed will deal with the mental health measures, but firearms bills are routed through the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee.

Several of the victims’ families plan to meet with Mr. Kaine on Saturday to express their concerns about being left out of the governor’s panel investigating the tragedy.

At yesterday’s meeting, legal and mental health professionals walked the committee through the complexities of Virginia’s emergency mental health system. The main topic of concern was the same one that has plagued those looking into the shootings: the confusion over who is supposed to ensure that those ordered to receive involuntary mental health treatment actually receive it.

“The code is not clear about the monitoring responsibility,” said James Stewart, the state’s inspector general for mental health, mental retardation and substance-abuse services. “There’s a lot of confusion surrounding that part of the code.”

Mary Ann Bergeron, executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Service Boards, said the state’s service boards are not clear on what their role should be in the monitoring of such cases.

“That varies in each locality and is definitely one of the things we would want to tighten up,” Miss Bergeron said.

Families and friends also have been frustrated with the way Cho slipped through the system’s cracks.

“Things fell apart where Cho was concerned,” said Lu Ann McNabb, a longtime family friend of the Samahas in Fairfax County who considered Miss Samaha her “third daughter.” “I guess my concern is the court-ordered treatment, and there was no follow-through.”

Meanwhile, Norris Hall — the campus building where Cho killed 30 persons and himself — was reopened yesterday for limited use of engineering labs, although access was restricted because of refurbishing work.

The closure of the building after the shooting rampage had stalled research by about 50 graduate students. About 10 of them were able to resume their work yesterday, said Ishwar Puri, head of the engineering science and mechanics department.

Work in the three-story, 1960s-era building includes removal of asbestos from flooring. Mr. Puri said the main laboratory wing should be accessible in a week or two.

Officials are reopening the rest of the building because it contains sophisticated laboratory equipment that could not be moved.

Two security guards are posted at the building, and for now access is limited to daytime hours.

The second-floor classrooms, where Cho shot 25 students and five faculty members, will not be used again.

The area of a separate dormitory where Cho killed two other students hours earlier remains walled off.

AP writer Lubna Takruri in the District contributed to this report.

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