Virginia Tech Shooting Victims' Family Members Outraged Over No Representation on Panel Studying Killings

Relatives of the Virginia Tech shooting victims demanded representation Monday on a gubernatorial panel studying the killings, saying in a letter that they feel "ostracized."

They also questioned the status of a memorial fund that has generated millions of dollars to honor the 32 victims of the student gunman.

"We are angry about being ostracized from a government-chartered panel investigating a government-sponsored university, and about how the university has used the names and images of our loved ones to raise millions of dollars without any consultation," the families said in a statement presented to the review board Monday during its third public meeting.

The statement was written on behalf of 13 families, said Holly Sherman, the mother of slain student Leslie Sherman.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's spokesman said the governor wanted "specialized expertise" when he named the eight-member panel, which includes former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, psychiatrists, educational specialists and former law enforcement officials. The panel was charged to review the tragedy, the circumstances that led to it and the response.

Kaine received several hundred requests from Virginians and those outside of the state wanting to serve on the panel, including some family members, panel Chairman W. Gerald Massengill said as Monday's meeting began.

"Family is important to us. It's also important, I think, to the governor that he have a panel that was viewed as being totally objective and not driven by emotions," said Massengill, a former Virginia State Police superintendent who oversaw the agency's response to the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon and the 2002 Washington-area sniper attacks.

The panel hopes to get some insight into how the student gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, was able to skirt Virginia's mental health system. Cho was ordered to receive outpatient mental health treatment in 2005 but never did.

He was referred to the Virginia Tech's Cook Counseling Center, which is not required by state law to report to the courts whether the patient ever receives the treatment. The center also does not accept involuntary or ordered referrals for treatment from any source -- including the courts.

"What would we do if they don't come? Do we report to the university or do we report to the special judge?" the counseling center's director, Christopher Flynn, asked the panel. "I think that puts counseling centers in an untenable position."

Panel members appeared frustrated throughout Monday's testimony as James Stewart, the state's inspector general for mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse services, repeatedly cited patient privacy laws when asked pointed questions about Cho's mental health treatment.

"Is there any record of him receiving outpatient treatment?" Ridge asked.

"We can't comment on that," Stewart replied as several in the audience shook their heads.

"Fascinating," Ridge responded dryly.

State and school officials have said privacy laws prevent even prevent officials from sharing Cho's records even after death.

"It's really rather remarkable we're talking about a deceased individual responsible for all kinds of carnage and you as an individual are still encumbered by law," Ridge told Stewart.

Panel member Diane Strickland, who once served as a Circuit Court judge in Roanoke and Salem, echoed Ridge's frustration.

"We are really operating with our hands tied, blindfolds, and maybe even gag orders here, and it's becoming increasingly frustrating for the members of this investigative body, for them to do their work," she said.

On the morning of April 16, Cho killed two students in a Virginia Tech dormitory, then went across campus to Norris Hall, chained the doors shut and opened fire inside several classrooms. He later committed suicide there. In all, Cho killed 27 students and five faculty members.

The families also asked for more information on the status of the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, which has received about $7 million in donations from nearly 20,000 sources since it was set up after the shootings.

Virginia Tech announced last week that it would take $3.2 million of the fund to create 32 $100,000 funds to honor each of the victims. The families questioned the university's use of the victims' names and pictures for "vast fundraising purposes."

Calls to spokesmen for the university were not immediately returned.

The families asked that a federal commission be named "to address the larger issues that affect all families and students" and also called for "sensible gun control" measures.

Gun rights advocates have argued that mass shootings such as the one at Virginia Tech could be curbed if students were allowed to carry weapons on campus.

"We are not advocating any particular solutions, but we are sure that having more guns more readily accessible on college campuses is not part of it," the families said in the statement.

The families also said it was important that panel members gain access to Cho's immigration and mental health records. Massengill has said that the panel would go to court if necessary to get Cho's medical and mental health records, which Virginia Tech officials have said federal privacy laws bar them from sharing.

"We do not accept that patient privacy is (or should be) the sole overriding criterion in making records available to those charged with public safety and security of our college campuses," the families wrote.