- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

RICHMOND — The panel reviewing the Virginia Tech massacre started its inquiry yesterday with questions about the series of events, how officials responded and whether the incident could provide insight for similar situations.

“We owe it to the victims, to those who were killed, to those who were wounded, to the families and friends of the victims,” Gov. Timothy M. Kaine told the panel’s eight members, whom he appointed. “We owe it to them to learn what happened that day.”

The massacre began on the morning of April 16 when senior Seung-hui Cho, a 23-year-old English major, fatally shot two students inside a dorm, then about 90 minutes later killed 30 more persons inside a classroom building before killing himself.

Mr. Kaine told the panel, led by retired State Police Superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, to take a three-pronged approach: Look at how and why Cho killed 32 persons over the course of two hours; work through the timeline of events that started when Cho left his dorm room that morning until he shot himself in the head inside Norris Hall; assess the state’s response to the injured, including how the victims were examined, and how state, local and college officials and hospitals responded to the event.

“The effort should proceed with a sense of urgency,” said Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, who hopes to have a final report before classes resume in the fall.

He also said the findings will influence his policy-making decisions on gun control, safety on college campuses and mental- health services. The finding also could provide colleges across the country with information to help avoid similar situations, Mr. Kaine said, one day before Virginia Tech’s graduation ceremonies in Blacksburg.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, also a panelist, said the findings would extend beyond Virginia’s borders, to 4,000 colleges and millions of students across the country.

He also urged fellow panelist not to second-guess decisions made that day.

“We have to put ourselves in the shoes of those who acted at the time based on what they knew at the time,” he said. “It’s always easier to connect the dots after all the dots are already laid out of the table.”

Although much of the attention has focused on the immediate aftermath of the shootings, panel members said the emergency-response times of school and law-enforcement officials were “outstanding” and a source of pride for all Virginians.

One of the biggest challenges facing panelist is the “mental-health aspect,” said Mr. Massengill, who also was involved in the inquiry into the 2002 Washington-area sniper shootings.

Panel members suggested that the most important question to be answered is how big of a role did privacy laws play in preventing law-enforcement or officials from knowing the extent of Cho’s mental illness.

“In my mind, I think we always struggle with the tension between public safety and civil liberties in public health,” said Dr. Aradhana Bela Sood, medical director of the Virginia Treatment Center for Children at Virginia Commonwealth University. There are “gaps here … through which [Cho] fell.”

In 2005, a special justice said Cho presented “an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness” and ordered outpatient treatment. But nobody followed up on the order, and Cho failed to get the outpatient treatment.

Last month, Mr. Kaine closed a loophole in state gun laws that had allowed Cho to purchase two handguns.

Mr. Kaine signed an executive order requiring that anyone ordered by a court to get mental health treatment be added to a state police database of people banned from buying guns.

Additional questions could be answered next summer when the Mental Health Law Reform Commission, created by Virginia Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr., reports its findings. Meanwhile, the Kaine-appointed panel is asking the public to use the Web site www.vtreviewpanel.org to comment on the tragedy and panel’s work.

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