Roger Depue, former FBI agent and member of the Virginia Tech shooting commission, stood in front of members of the mental health officials and talked about “leakage.” In Depue’s view, everyone has a fantasy life. When a person has a particularly intense fantasy, hints of it seep out. For some, said Depue, “it is impossible not to leak what they hold dear.”
“People hide behind the law and stop thinking about what the right thing to do is,” said Richard Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.
He turned to a Powerpoint slide projected on an 8′ high screen. On it was the now infamous image of Seung-Hui Cho pointing two handguns at the camera, an image that had flashed across millions of TV screens in the days after the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings.
“Leakage,” Depue said in his understated tone, “sometimes takes the form of warning signs.”
The Friday morning panel featuring Depue was part of a two-day conference presented by the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at UVA. James Reinhard, commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Mental Health, and Richard Bonnie, director of the institute, joined Depue in a panel called “Reflections Upon the Virginia Tech Tragedy.”
Depue, who was called in as a consultant to the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, asked the audience regarding Cho, “Where were the opportunities for intervention?” He then went into a detailed history of the troubled teenager’s background, listing points in time where such opportunities, either by the state or the school, were missed. At the time of the shooting, Depue said, police, professors, students and the college all had important information about Cho.
“But there was little sharing,” Depue said.
Later, Bonnie laid a significant portion of the blame for the lack of sharing squarely at the feet of overly complicated laws. Worried about privacy concerns relating to the Family Educational Right and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), colleges like Virginia Tech choose to err on the side of personal privacy.
“It’s just easier to say it’s against privacy rules than to think about whether it’s actually against the rules,” he said. “People hide behind the law and stop thinking about what the right thing to do is.”
The Tech shootings, said Bonnie, are bringing up echoes of a debate that has continued since September 11th: the struggle between public safety and private rights.
Bonnie argued that the complexity of privacy laws has lead to institutional paralysis in colleges and universities.
“I do think the law is at fault here,” he said. “[Universities] don’t think about what the right thing to do is. They look at the law to what they can do.”