- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2007

PETERSBURG, Va. — The panel reviewing the Virginia Tech shootings likely will issue broad recommendations for all the agencies involved — from police to universities to the mental-health community — the panel’s chairman said.

“I expect that we will identify a number of best practices, a number of things that were done right,” Chairman Gerald Massengill said. “But I think there will be some constructive — call it whatever you want to call it — criticism, guidance, in most of the fields, if not all.”

With a report due in mid-August, the panel has one more scheduled public meeting, set for Wednesday in Charlottesville. The agenda includes discussions on how to handle troubled students, civil-commitment law reform and other mental-health issues. The panel will meet in closed session with its attorneys Thursday to summarize the voluminous data it has collected on the mentally ill gunman, Seung-hui Cho, a Tech student who killed 32 persons and himself.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, created the eight-member panel shortly after the April 16 shootings.

Members have had to contend with complex privacy laws, accusations that its review won’t be impartial or comprehensive, and the delicate issue of whether to grant the victims’ families representation on the panel.

Mr. Massengill — a former Virginia State Police superintendent who oversaw the agency’s response to the September 11 attack on the Pentagon and the 2002 sniper attacks in the D.C. area — said the panel has worked hard to ensure the credibility of its investigation. He thinks the public will have confidence in the final report.

“I have said to the panel a number of times: The legacy of this panel will be the quality of this report, and when we make a recommendation, if there’s not supportive reasoning and logic to support that recommendation, then I think the legacy will be in question,” Mr. Massengill said.

Family members of many of the victims have questioned whether a “government-chartered panel” can be objective in its investigation of a “government-sponsored university.”

In May, Mr. Massengill praised police for their response to Norris Hall, where Cho killed 30 persons before committing suicide.

He said the panel has not jumped to conclusions about any aspect of how the attacks were handled and has conducted extensive interviews with law-enforcement agencies.

The committee also is examining how the university and police responded during the more than two hours that elapsed between the time Cho killed two students in a dormitory and his shooting spree at Norris. That morning, the school sent a mass e-mail more than two hours after the first victims were killed, advising the community of the shootings and urging caution. Cho began shooting inside Norris Hall about 20 minutes later.

“I have made public statements dealing with the police response to Norris Hall, knowing that after their arrival that within five minutes they were on the second floor,” Mr. Massengill said. “I have said or have tried to respond to that in a complimentary way, because I think that was a response that saved lives. But that does not halo other issues within law enforcement.”

Questions about Virginia’s mental-health system have taken center stage in the investigation. In 2005, Cho was ordered to undergo outpatient mental-health treatment, though Mr. Massengill said records the panel obtained from the university’s counseling center have failed to clarify whether he ever received the counseling. Mr. Massengill did offer: “I would think the absence of documentation might tell you something within itself.”

He said panel members also have questioned counselors who helped Cho during his youth to try to determine whether he exhibited any signs that foreshadowed his violent behavior.

The panel’s investigation has been complicated by privacy laws that prevent officials from sharing Cho’s records even after death.

However, the panel has received releases granting access to almost any record connected to Cho, Mr. Massengill said. Last month, the panel obtained his university mental-health records after weeks of negotiation with his family.

Although the mental-health debate has received the most attention, Mr. Massengill said, the panel has been studying other issues, such as firearms laws and building safety.

Several victims’ family members have demanded representation on the commission.

Mr. Massengill said he can understand the families’ frustration, but that the recommendations of the panel must be free of the perception of being driven by emotions rather than logic. He also said just as victims cannot serve on juries, relatives of the victims should not serve on the review panel.

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