- Special reports from The Roanoke Times, including complete coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings
Gov. Tim Kaine today ceremonially signed legislation that makes major changes to the state’s mental health system, targeting weaknesses exposed by last year’s mass shootings at Virginia Tech.
Just one week before the first anniversary of the shootings, Kaine hailed the new mental health reforms and signed bills into law dealing with campus security and firearms issues. All of the bills were prompted by the April 16, 2007, rampage, the deadliest campus shooting incident in U.S. history.
“It’s been a difficult year, but it’s been a year when people haven’t shrinked from trying to learn and improve,” Kaine said at a ceremony attended by Attorney General Bob McDonnell, lawmakers from both parties, and the father of a Tech student who was injured in the shootings.
Kaine said he will make technical changes to two comprehensive mental health reform bills, and those changes will require approval from the General Assembly during its April 23 veto session. But the governor said the legislation will improve standards and increase accountability in community-based mental health services. New funding also will help the system deal with growing demands for services, he said.
Kaine said the Tech shootings called attention to the need “to improve mental health services in Virginia and especially mental health services that are offered in the communities of our commonwealth.”
The mental health legislation broadens the standard the state uses to commit individuals to treatment against their will and improves monitoring of people under outpatient treatment orders. The bills also extend the period for emergency custody and temporary detention orders and require representatives of local community services boards to participate in commitment hearings.
State officials already had been examining changes to Virginia’s mental health commitment laws before last April, when troubled Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself on the Blacksburg campus. Cho had a history of behavioral problems and had been ordered to get outpatient treatment by a Montgomery County special justice 16 months before the shootings. But no one made sure Cho complied with the treatment order.
“It’s a terrible shame that it took something as terrible as Virginia Tech and the incident there to bring to light so many inadequacies in the mental health system,” said Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin was seriously wounded in the shootings. “I’m sure many people were crying out about this for a long time and it didn’t get the spotlight it deserved until this thing happened. But the people in the General Assembly have done their work and they have come forward with a lot of very good legislation.”
Kaine also signed a bill that requires courts to forward information about involuntary mental health commitments to a federal database used to check the records of potential gun buyers. Cho was able to purchase two firearms more than a year after he was ordered to get treatment because information about his case was not entered into the database. The bill makes permanent an executive order Kaine signed two weeks after the shootings.
Kaine also signed bills that require colleges to develop crisis and emergency management plans, create campus "threat assessment teams" and implement notification systems to inform campus communities of emergencies.