This article states: "At least five times in the chapter on mental health, Virginia Tech employees responded to your requests for information by saying their records were missing. Are you concerned about these missing or unfurnished records? (President Charles Steger acknowledged later Thursday that some employees mishandled documents and are no longer employed by Tech.)"
"It's a curious matter to us as a panel that some of these records have disappeared from the Cook Counseling Center. He was triaged three times -- once by phone in November, once by phone in December and once in person in December. And all three of those reports are gone."
'IT HAS BEEN VERY STRESSFUL'
Roanoke Times, The (VA)
August 31, 2007
Author: Beth Macy email@example.com 981-3435
Estimated printed pages: 6
She heard the screams from the 911 recordings.
She interviewed 44 witnesses, from the young woman who hid a cellphone underneath her splayed hair so police could hear what was going on inside her Norris Hall classroom, to the roommates who tried -- and failed -- to connect with Seung-Hui Cho.
With 15 years as a Roanoke Valley circuit court judge behind her, Diane Strickland had the experience Gov. Tim Kaine was looking for when he assembled the Virginia Tech Review Panel -- the group commissioned to study the April 16 tragedy and to recommend ways to keep it from happening again.
Known in statewide legal circles for her innovation, persistence and analytical skills, Strickland, 59, had toiled in mental health law for years, having regularly reviewed involuntary commitments at the state's Catawba Hospital. She also co-chaired a statewide committee of lawyers examining the mental commitment process.
But that experience wasn't nearly as close-up and heart-rending as her work on the panel, she said, where the stakes were unprecedented and the scrutiny intense. Strickland and two other panel members researched the chapter about Cho's mental health history. She personally wrote and edited much of the report, which she describes as "hard-hitting."
In recent interviews, Strickland talked about trying to understand the anguished mind of Seung-Hui Cho -- and figuring out how to fix a system that couldn't keep it from spiraling out of control.
Following is a condensed version of the interviews.
What has the panel experience been like for you?
It has been very, very stressful and emotionally draining.
What was the biggest challenge of serving on the panel?
The most difficult challenge for me was the sessions with the family members because I felt at such a loss for words that would communicate my sympathies for their loss and how to provide the appropriate amount of reassurance that we were going to do the best job we could to answer their questions.
Have you met the families?
I've met with several families. Each family is suffering in different ways. But many are struggling with other burdens as well. I met with one single mother who is concerned about how she will pay her rent without the contributions that were made by her son who was killed. I met with a wife from a foreign country who now believes that she will have to return to her country as she has no family support here.
What has the response to the report's issue been like for you?
The report is being taken seriously in that it's being received as being a very comprehensive work, and there are a lot of information and recommendations. I know that at this point in time people are just looking for the bombshells, if you will. It will take awhile for folks to get into the heart of it, the 70-some recommendations we have in there.
It seemed significant that Cho's family had been so responsive about getting him into treatment earlier and yet had no knowledge of his later troubles.
I was very interested to learn that they had actively involved him in counseling, and since he didn't have means of transportation at that time, they were, in addition to working jobs, making sure he got to his counseling for that three-year period.
The parents are struggling with tremendous sorrow and an inability to address the loss of the families of the victims. They're very, very remorseful about all of this and they're questioning: What were the signs and what should have been done?
Did Cho's parents know he was still having trouble at Tech?
They knew that he continued to be uncommunicative, but they thought that all was going well at college. They would call him every Sunday night and he would assure them that he was "fine."
... But if you have a child who every summer and every break does nothing, you have to wonder. He never had a summer job, he never went out with friends to the movies or sports events.
Did his parents know about his hospitalization?
No. When you're dealing with an adult, the health care providers must request permission to communicate with family or friends. That's part of the problem. There is an exception in federal health and education privacy laws: If the person poses a danger to himself or is a threat to others, then certain communication is permitted.
Why didn't the mental health workers know that?
The privacy laws are not well understood, even by the clinicians. There was no communication between Saint Albans [Hospital] and Cook Counseling Center. The folks at Saint Albans were concerned about how far they were permitted to go in communicating with folks at Virginia Tech and vice versa.
At least five times in the chapter on mental health, Virginia Tech employees responded to your requests for information by saying their records were missing. Are you concerned about these missing or unfurnished records? (President Charles Steger acknowledged later Thursday that some employees mishandled documents and are no longer employed by Tech.)
It's a curious matter to us as a panel that some of these records have disappeared from the Cook Counseling Center. He was triaged three times -- once by phone in November, once by phone in December and once in person in December. And all three of those reports are gone.
I have to say that Dr. Christopher Flynn, who's now the director of the counseling center, said when I interviewed him: "No one, no one more than me wants to find those records."
Lucinda Roy clearly tried very hard to help him. And yet at a large university, one person working diligently with a disturbed student clearly isn't enough. What are the most important recommendations to ensure Tech addresses the myriad gaps exposed in the report?
Both Professor Roy in the fall of '05 and Professor [Lisa] Norris in fall of '06 were very conscientious in their efforts to try to get Cho into counseling. I don't know what else they could have done. Professor Norris even offered to go with him -- above and beyond the call for a college professor.
The concerns were made known in '05 to the Care team, which is a body of individuals that discuss student issues. And it was fully discussed at that time. The problems that I see with what they had in practice at that time was that they didn't have clear channels for information to come to the Care team, in part because they didn't have all the key people on the Care team. ... So you have a situation where there's a group that has responsibility, but they don't have the data and information they need to connect the dots, to see the big picture.
From all that you read and heard, do you feel like you know Seung-Hui Cho?
No. My sense is that he was a very insecure person, very immature, too. But he was so uncommunicative that he was hard to know.
You're confident that Cho truly had no friends?
None that we could find. ... nobody ever saw him with anybody at Tech. His roommate from his junior year told me that he asked Cho, "Who do you hang out with?" Cho replied, "Nobody." When he was home in the summer, his family said he never had a job, never went out.
Does the report assign blame, as some families clearly want?
Our charge was to investigate all of the facts and to come up with recommendations for how to improve the system. We were not charged with assessing blame.
Is it "scathing," as some news reports have suggested?
I think it's a hard-hitting report. I think that we certainly have pointed out a lot of areas of concern, both about his mental health issues -- how they were not addressed by not only Virginia Tech but also by the mental health system, with the failure to transfer records from high school to college, which is apparently a systemwide problem -- and on to the findings that we made on the handling of the [police and university response] matters on April 16.
Should students and parents be any more cautious sending their children to Tech or any other Virginia school?
I would be of the opinion at this point, given the focus that Virginia schools are putting on matters of public safety in the aftermath of April 16, that perhaps there would be greater comfort to a parent in sending their child to a Virginia college. They know they have been working very diligently to try and close the gaps in the system.
What's next for you?
I'll resume my mediation practice and get back to some of my pet projects.
Will you carry this experience with you?
I suspect that this experience will always be a part of me.
But I know that what I feel pales in comparison to what the families who lost a loved one or the students and faculty who went through the experience are suffering.
Log on to roanoke.com for Beth Macy's full Q&A with Diane Strickland.
Diane McQuade Strickland
n Mediator for the Richmond-based McGammon Group.
n First female circuit court judge in the Roanoke Valley, from 1989 to 2003; General District Court judge from 1987-89.
n Launched Virginia's first Drug Court program in 1995.
n Launched Virginia's first Youth Court in 2003.
n Founder of the Interfaith Coalition of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a volunteer group that travels to help rebuild Gulf Coast communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
n Founder of a nonprofit that funds tutoring and education expenses for children in Guadalajara, Mexico.
n Has served on many boards, including Gov. Mark Warner's Crime in Minority Communities Initiative Task Force and the Virginia Code Commission. Served last year as a commission member for the Virginia Supreme Court's study, "Virginia Courts in the 21st Century."
photo - SAM DEAN The Roanoke Times - Diane Strickland
Index Terms: Virginia Tech Review Panel; Q&A; VPIMUR ONLINE
Copyright (c) 2007 The Roanoke Times
Record Number: 0708310080
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'IT HAS BEEN VERY STRESSFUL'