Schools, doctors and police often do not share information about potentially dangerous students because they can’t figure out complicated and overlapping privacy laws, according to a report released Wednesday on the Virginia Tech shooting.
“This confusion and differing interpretations about state and federal privacy laws and regulations impede appropriate information sharing,” the study’s authors wrote.
As a result, information that could be used to get troubled students counseling or prevent them from buying handguns never makes it to the appropriate agency, the report by three Cabinet agencies said.
President Bush ordered the report in April after Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty before taking his own life in what was the worst massacre in modern U.S. history.
Cho’s roommates noticed he had problems, his professors expressed concern about his violent writings, and a judge ordered him into treatment after describing the young man as a danger to himself and others.
But it’s unclear whether Cho received follow-up treatment, and because the court order never made it into a federal database, he was able to legally purchase two handguns to carry out the attack.
The report was released Wednesday, just after the House passed what could become the first major federal gun control law in over a decade. The bill would improve state reporting to a federal database used to block gun purchases by prohibited buyers.
Shortly after the shootings, Bush dispatched Cabinet officials across the country, ordering them to meet with school officials, mental health experts and local leaders to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.
The report by the departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education found that teachers and school administrators feared liability for sharing information and didn’t understand whether they could be held responsible for not sharing information.
The report also recommended that schools develop systems that allow them to quickly notify students when emergencies occur.
Virginia Tech officials waited more than two hours to alert the school’s nearly 26,000 students that two of their peers had been shot dead in a dormitory. By then, Cho was in another campus building, murdering 30 more people.
The school is considering programs to alert students of security issues through cell phone text messages.