Va. Tech Victims' Kin Feel "Ostracized"

Marian Hammaren, left, and Tricia White, listen to testimony while Mike White comforts Mary Read at the third public meeting of Virginia Gov. Kaine's Independent Virginia Tech Incident Review Panel in Fairfax, Va. on Monday, June 11, 2007. The parents, whose children were slain in the massacre at Virginia Tech, attended the meeting where reports on mental health issues surrounding the incident were discussed. At White's feet is a photograph of his daughter Nicole White, who was killed in the shootings.
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 a patient ever receives 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.

State and school officials have said privacy laws 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.