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Virginia Tech report: Share mental health data

Story Highlights

• Educators, doctors, police not clear on what law allows, report says
• "Information silos" hinder sharing of information, it determines
• Report urges cultural steps to take stigma off mental illness
• President Bush ordered report five days after April 16 massacre
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Cowed by confusing privacy laws, authorities sometimes fail to raise red flags about potentially dangerous students, and peers keep quiet out of a false sense of duty, a federal report on the Virginia Tech shootings concluded Wednesday.

On April 16, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 fellow students and faculty members before killing himself on the Blacksburg, Virginia, campus in the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history.

The 23-year-old student had been described as a loner by his roommates and the violence in his writings had worried his teachers. After Cho expressed suicidal thoughts to a roommate, who then alerted others, Cho was given a psychological evaluation and a judge ordered he be treated.

But that order was not entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and Cho was able to buy the two guns he used in the shooting spree.

"Accurate and complete information on individuals prohibited from possessing firearms is essential to keep guns out of the wrong hands," the report concluded.

Part of the problem is that educators, doctors and police aren't sure what they're permitted to reveal about someone's medical history, the report found.

"We need to do a much better job educating educators, [the] mental health community and law enforcement that they can, in fact, share information when a person's safety or a community's safety is in fact potentially endangered," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt told reporters after delivering the report to President Bush.

"When a person is in danger themselves, or when a community is in danger, the existing law does provide the capacity for law enforcement to work with school communities, and school communities to work with the mental health community to get people help," he said.

On April 21, five days after the massacre, Bush asked the heads of the departments of Education, Justice and Health and Human Services to learn from educators, mental health experts, police and state and local officials in a dozen states how the federal government can help prevent similar calamities.

Communication of concerns was the dominant theme.

"We repeatedly heard reports of 'information silos' within educational institutions and among educational staff, mental health providers, and public safety officials that impede appropriate information sharing," said the report.

On the state level, a Virginia inspector general's report this week recommended that the state look at changing its mental-treatment commitment process to allow such authorities to contribute their observations and opinions. It also recommended increasing the number of "secure crisis stabilization programs" -- basically mental health intensive care units where patients can be held involuntarily for short periods.

State laws do not always ensure that information on people not allowed to own handguns is sent to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the federal report said.

Recommendations proffered

Though the report concluded that "in a country of more than 300 million people, it is impossible to eliminate all risks," it laid out a number of recommendations, including ensuring that information be maintained on individuals prohibited from owning firearms.

It recommended efforts to "de-stigmatize" mental illness, reduce student isolation and encourage students to seek help for themselves and others.

The report cited concerns from a number of participants over "an insufficient number of skilled mental health workers" that sometimes resulted in waiting lists for services, though this was apparently not the case with Cho.

In a written statement, Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said, "Based on my quick review, the report unearthed the deep complexities of the issues facing college campuses today. We believe that this will further inform the national and our state discussion on the nexus between societal safety and personal freedoms."

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has ordered a separate investigation into the killings, which is not complete.



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