NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · VIRGINIA · Freedom of Information · May 24, 2007
Virginia Tech panel closes part of meeting
May 24, 2007 · The panel investigating last month’s Virginia Tech shootings closed the first three hours of their meeting to the press on Monday, while the school’s president barred access to the tour of the buildings where 33 people died.
The eight-member Virginia Tech Review Panel cited exceptions in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act that ostensibly shield students’ privacy and briefings by law enforcement agencies, according to Roanoke (Va.) Times reporter Michael Sluss.
The panel, which includes former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former state judge Diane Strickland, is charged with investigating the April 16 massacre in which student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people before killing himself.
Several reporters spoke out in objection before the meeting was closed. The journalists objected to the limited access, saying the exceptions the panel cited in closing the meeting were improperly applied.
“I would like to point out that, though the law allows you to close the meeting . . . it doesn’t mandate it,” Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch reporter Rex Bowman said prior to the meeting being closed.
The panel’s chairman, retired state police Superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, said panel members “want this process to be as public as we can make it.”
“I hope you understand there are certain sensitive materials that are allowable within Virginia law that we must gather,” he said. “And to gather that information effectively, we have to do it with some degree of privacy and that is allowable by law.”
The panel said it needed to meet privately to discuss student disciplinary, scholastic, medical and mental health records. It also cited the need to receive briefings from law enforcement officials surrounding the actions they took in response to the April 16 shootings.
News outlets have reported that Cho had been ordered to undergo outpatient mental treatment in late 2005. A female student complained of unwanted contact by Cho that November, while the chair of the school’s English department also contacted police about some of Cho’s writings and classroom behavior. That December, another female student complained about computer messages that Cho sent her.
The school’s police say they were never aware that Cho was ordered to undergo treatment.
The panel closed its Monday meeting partly to discuss Cho’s mental health and disciplinary records. Federal privacy laws — specifically the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 — prevent the release of certain medical and counseling records to the public.
The university made the call in closing the tour of West Ambler Johnston Hall, where the first two students were killed, and Norris Hall classrooms, where Cho killed an additional 25 students and five faculty members and then committed suicide. Virginia Tech President Charles Steger told reporters the tour was closed to the media out of respect for the families of the shooting victims.
Reporters were frustrated by the closing of the meeting and tour since Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Massengill had vowed the panel would conduct much of its work in public.
The reporters in attendance also questioned the meeting’s closure based on medical privacy concerns because by law, panel members were unable to gain access to Cho’s mental health records.
University counsel Kay Heidbreder told reporters the privacy laws also barred university officials and police from finding out what, if any, mental health treatment Cho received. Heidbreder added that the university could not even tell the panel whether its counseling center dealt with Cho.
She said the laws mean the records cannot be shared even among departments at the university, even when the person is dead.
Bowman reported in the Times-Dispatch on Wednesday that Massengill said the panel will go to court if necessary to get Cho’s medical and mental health records.
After speaking to the state attorney general’s office, Massengill believes the panel can get the records through a law that requires state oversight of mental facilities, according to the Times-Dispatch report.
The panel does not have the power to issue subpoenas to compel testimony and obtain documents. The panel is slated to meet again on June 11.
Media organizations have also said they will keep their legal options open, and several media groups — including The Washington Post, USA Today and The Associated Press — have formed a coalition to discuss legal access issues related to the shootings. The move was spurred by problems such as a refusal to release 911 tapes, said Megan Schnabel, a metro editor at The Roanoke Times.