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Panel Says Privacy Law Confusion Impedes Sharing Information About Troubled Students

WASHINGTON (AP) _ 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 federal report released Wednesday on the Virginia Tech shooting.

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.

``People don't understand what they can share and what they can't share,'' said Mike Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services.

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the panel had not shared its findings with the university, so he did not immediately have a comment.

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.

On top of federal privacy laws governing health and student information, states have privacy laws of their own and police have rules limiting disclosure of criminal information.

``They can in fact share information when a person's safety or the community's safety is, in fact, potentially in danger,'' Leavitt said.

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.

Though the report said the government should do a better job ensuring data is entered into the federal database used to approve gun purchases, officials did not propose or study possible changes to gun control laws.

``That really wasn't within the purview of what they decided that they're going to look at,'' White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

He said such questions are better left to state governments and noted that Virginia has its own inquiry into the shooting.
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