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Learning from tragedy

May 11, 2007

By Michael Hardy

The panel investigating the mass murder at Virginia Tech should focus on the gunman's motivations, the timeline of events and the response of authorities, the governor said yesterday.

"We owe it to the victims to learn everything that has happened and why," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine told the first meeting of the eight-member panel.

If there's "anything redeeming about this tragedy," Kaine said, it is that the panel will produce recommendations and "ideas to be better and stronger in the future."

"Virginians have questions — there is a sense of urgency," he said, asking the panel to produce by August recommendations for colleges and universities in Virginia and nationally to prevent and respond to such rampages.

The panel, appointed by Kaine, may be the best avenue people have for understanding what happened at Tech that day. Its recommendations could challenge lawmakers to review gun laws and to reform or provide additional money to the state's mental-health system, which has been criticized for decades for its shortcomings. The panel today also questioned that system.

Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech's president, said the university will fully cooperate with the investigation. Questions have been raised about the university's delay in warning students and faculty about the shootings.

"We owe it to the injured, we owe it to the families of the fallen, indeed we owe it to all other schools and campuses in this country to examine all these issues . . . and find ways of preventing anything like this ever again," Steger said.

Seung-Hui Cho, 23, a Tech senior from Northern Virginia, shot to death 32 fellow students and faculty members on April 16 before killing himself. Sixteen months earlier, a judge had found him a danger to himself because of suicidal thoughts and ordered him to seek outpatient treatment.

It is uncertain what services, if any, he sought and received.

Members of the panel, composed of law-enforcement, judicial, medical and mental-health experts, questioned the state's gun and mental-treatment systems.

"There's very little resources and funding in community-based treatment and counseling," observed Dr. Aradhana A. "Bela" Sood, medical director of the Virginia Treatment Center for Children at VCU Medical Center.

Besides resources, the panel should look closely at the state's commitment laws and the availability of treatment.

Diane M. Strickland, a former judge in the Roanoke area, agreed. "I was constantly reminded as a judge of the paucity of services in Virginia," she said. "Providing treatment in the community is very limited."

Dr. Marcus L. Martin, an assistant dean at the University of Virginia medical school and a specialist in emergency response, characterized as "outstanding" the local response to the Virginia Tech tragedy.

He said the panel should investigate the psychological and counseling services offered to Cho.

Some have raised questions about the two-hour gap between Cho's shooting of two students in West Ambler Johnston Hall and his killings of 30 in Norris Hall classrooms.

W. Gerald Massengill, the panel's chairman who was the superintendent of Virginia State Police, expressed confidence that facts will show that Tech authorities acted based on available information.

"That gap was filled with a lot of activity," he told reporters. "It's not that law-enforcement and college administrators were doing nothing."

Another panel member, Tom Ridge, the nation's first secretary of Homeland Security, said one of the most difficult tasks is to "sit in judgment of others."

"The objective of this panel is to learn" lessons for other universities. This could have happened at any U.S. campus, he said.

He warned that the panel, in assessing and making recommendations about "what was done or not done," must take into account the facts facing authorities at the time.

Fewer than 50 people attended the four-hour meeting in the General Assembly Building. Many of them were media, and only five people addressed the group.

June Hazlehurst of Richmond, of the gun-control organization Virginia Center for Public Safety, commended Kaine for recently closing the gun loophole that allowed Cho to buy firearms despite his mental history and court adjudication.

Julia Torres Barden of Richmond, a substitute teacher and former cable-system spokeswoman, said a system must be implemented on campuses, including sirens, to warn of potentially dangerous situations.

Jim Kadison of the Virginia Citizens Defense League said deaths and casualties could have been reduced through a sought-after law allowing guns on campuses. Tech bans carrying guns on campus even by those with concealed-weapons permits.

"It would make for a much safer campus," Kadison said.

Contact staff writer Michael Hardy at mhardy@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6810.