Tech killer deserves no protection
By RAY MCALLISTER
RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH COLUMNIST
The Virginia Tech shootings revealed troubling issues with the state's mental-health system, its treatment of severely disturbed people, and maybe even police and administrative responses.
But one issue doesn't seem to take a brain surgeon:
Why are mental-health-related records of the shooter being kept private?
Cho not only killed 32 innocent people on April 16, he killed himself.
So why are we still trying to protect HIS privacy?
Investigators on a gubernatorial review panel are looking into whether the massacre could have been prevented -- or more important, whether others can be.
But they're stymied, at least temporarily.
In 2005, the killer-to-be was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment by a special justice who found him to be suicidal. But it's unclear whether he sought the treatment -- or whether anyone in the system cared one way or the other.
Something's broken there.
But Virginia Tech says -- rightly, apparently -- that it is forbidden even from disclosing whether Cho ever sought mental treatment there, let alone turning over to citizen panels any files that may exist.
W. Gerald Massengill, head of the panel, says the group will go to court if it needs to.
It shouldn't need to.
The U.S. Department of Education says don't blame it.
"As a college student, Seung Hui Cho's [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] rights expired upon his death," Education Department spokeswoman Katherine McLane said. She said his education or treatment records could be released at "the discretion of the institution."
FERPA rights expire at death, but it seems HIPAA rights -- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act rights -- live on in the afterlife.
HIPAA's privacy rule, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site, "is balanced to protect an individual's privacy while allowing important law-enforcement functions to continue." Information can be disclosed but usually only to law-enforcement entities under specific circumstances.
That's too tough a standard, when a gubernatorial commission has to labor -- and have its important work delayed -- simply to get information about a dead man.
Paula Price, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, a citizens organization that promotes mental-health issues, cautioned yesterday against a rush to overhaul privacy laws, though.
They possibly make the nation less dangerous, not more, she said. Without them, fewer would seek help. "The stigma against people with mental issues is the culprit that keeps them from getting treatment."
But again, the shooter is dead. What's the stigma now?
Price said it's possible some would be less likely to seek help if they thought their illness would be revealed after death. That might shame their families.
Price urged lawmakers to be cautious if they consider changing privacy laws, as many people think could happen at the federal and state levels. "This is an extraordinary case," she said, "and any time laws are made for a particular case, they're generally not good laws."
But there simply has to be an exception made in cases like this.
Cho did horrific harm before finally turning that gun on himself.
He shouldn't be allowed to continue.