- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Relatives of students killed in the Virginia Tech massacre yesterday demanded to be represented on the panel investigating the shooting, saying it is a “non-negotiable” request to help ensure the accuracy of the panel”s findings.

“Our concern is that we have someone who is the eyes, ears, nose and mouth for the families,” said Holly Sherman, mother of slain student Leslie Sherman. “I think we are feeling a little helpless … We are a little skeptical.”

“We believe you can accomplish your goals better with our participation than without it,” said Peter Read, father of Mary Karen Read.

The request came in the third meeting of the blue-ribbon commission investigating the events leading up to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

The panel, which met yesterday at George Mason University in Fairfax, is expected to offer recommendations this summer on how to prevent similar situations.

Speaking on behalf of relatives of 13 of the 32 victims, attorney Thomas J. Fadoul Jr. said the families met in Centreville this weekend and decided they did not like the idea of “the government watching the government.”

“By its nature, it is a conflict of interest,” he said, adding that the families likely would explore legal remedies if their request is denied.

In a written statement, the families said they were “angry about being ostracized from a government-chartered panel investigating a government-sponsored university.”

Panel Chairman W. Gerald Massengill, former superintendent of the state police, said it is up to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, to decide whether to expand the panel.

However, Mr. Massengill said he “would not recommend it” because it is important that people believe the panel is objective.

Mr. Kaine”s office seemed to agree.

“The governor and panel members repeatedly have invited input from the public, and there has been a special emphasis on dialogue with any family member who wants the opportunity to share their thoughts or issues with the panel,” Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said.

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 killed 30 others in a classroom building before killing himself.

Since then, it has been revealed that Cho was a mentally ill loner whose disturbing behavior was known by mental-health and campus officials. Privacy laws and vaguely written state laws, in part, allowed Cho to slip through the cracks.

James Stewart, Virginia inspector general for mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse services, yesterday told the panel that Cho”s case demonstrates how the mental-health system does not always have deep enough pockets to support the number of people diagnosed with mental illnesses.

“I think the underlying function here is the resources available to provide a range of services are inadequate,” Mr. Stewart said, after offering preliminary recommendations to improve how the mental-health system responds to people on the verge of psychotic explosions. “I think a full understanding of the Virginia system for psychiatric emergencies will reveal where corrections need to be made.”

Mr. Stewart”s report outlined Cho”s trip through the state”s mental-health system.

In December 2005, a special justice held a commitment hearing for Cho, decided he presented an imminent danger to himself and ordered him to get outpatient treatment. The order did not designate a professional or agency to deliver the service.

The report says that Cho, with the help of a hospital liaison, set up an appointment with the Cook Counseling Center at Virginia Tech. Privacy laws have prevented the panel from finding out whether Cho kept the appointment.

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

“It”s becoming increasingly frustrating for this investigative body to do its work,” said panel member Diane Strickland, a former Roanoke County Circuit judge.

Mr. Massengill addressed the frustration.

“We”re going to get the information we need,” he said, “no matter what it takes.”

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