Sunday, November 16, 2008

ROANOKE | It has been 19 months since the worst mass shootings in U.S. history struck the Virginia Tech campus, and some grieving family members are demanding more information about how the tragedy was handled. Others are focused on legal steps that could reduce the likelihood of a future massacre.

Both will be looking to Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, for solutions at meetings this month that promise to be lengthy and filled with emotion.

Mr. Kaine will hold two meetings with families of the 32 people who were killed and the two dozen who were injured on April 16, 2007. One will be in Chantilly on Saturday and the other in Richmond next Sunday. The meetings are the first of three with the governor and are part of a settlement to avoid lawsuits over the shootings by student Seung-Hui Cho, who took his own life.

Family members said they expect the meetings to track those held earlier with police who investigated the shootings and university administrators. All were lengthy, with the longest lasting eight hours.

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the governor plans to be available for as long as the families want to meet.

The earlier meetings proved wrenching for Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie was among those killed. She won’t be attending a meeting with Mr. Kaine.

“Afterwards, thinking of the things brought up and going over them again has not done me any good personally,” Mrs. Sherman said. “It just dredged up so many emotions.”

Some family members conducted their own investigation into the events on the morning of April 16 and have found conflicting accounts of the timeline of events and other discrepancies. They have asked Mr. Kaine to resolve those conflicts, possibly by reopening the investigation. They plan to renew their request when they see him, said Mike White, whose daughter Nicole was killed.

“We just want to know the truth,” Mr. White said. “We want to know everything that happened that day, and the things leading up to it.”

Cho killed two students in a dormitory about 7:15 that morning and 30 people in a classroom building more than two hours later. An e-mail alerting the campus to the first shootings wasn’t sent until about 15 minutes before Cho’s Norris Hall rampage, and some family members and the panel appointed by Mr. Kaine criticized the university for not sending an earlier warning.

Sherry McCain, whose daughter Lauren died, believes officials did the best they could in responding to the shootings, and that Cho would have gone on a shooting rampage no matter what. “This person had a purpose,” she said. “It was well-thought-out.”

But Mrs. McCain understands why others still have questions.

“That’s human nature,” she said. “People have to settle in their minds why something happened.”

Mrs. McCain hasn’t attended any of the meetings and doesn’t plan to go to a meeting with Mr. Kaine.

Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin was shot four times but survived, said he hopes in the meeting with Mr. Kaine to address state law changes that could help prevent a similar tragedy.

“There are still a number of things left on the mental-health side that need to be looked at,” said Mr. Goddard, a newly appointed member of the board of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services.

Several parents said they want to make sure state budget cuts forced by the faltering economy don’t seriously affect mental-health services.

How the mentally disturbed Cho fell through the cracks is of more concern to Mrs. Sherman than further scrutiny of officials’ response the day of the shootings.

Mrs. Sherman said she’s disturbed by “the overall protective stance surrounding the administrators who failed for years to do the right thing by this guy.”

“Steger and the policy group were basically the damage control afterwards,” she said, referring to university president Charles Steger.

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