A year after tragedy, colleges are more vigilant

The rampage carried out one year ago today by a deranged Virginia Tech student who slipped through the mental health system has changed how American colleges reach out to troubled students.

Administrators are pushing students harder to get help, looking more aggressively for signs of trouble, and urging faculty to speak up when they have concerns. Counselors say the changes are sending even more students their way, which is both welcome and a challenge, given that many still lack the resources to handle their growing workloads.

Behind those changes, colleges have edged away in the last year from decades-old practices that made student privacy paramount. Now, they are more likely to err on the side of sharing information–with the police, for instance, and with parents–if there is any possible threat to community safety. But even some who say the changes are appropriate worry that this trend could discourage students from seeking treatment.

Concerns also linger that the response to shooters such as Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech and Steven Kazmierczak, who killed five others at Northern Illinois University this past February, has focused excessively on boosting the capacity of campus police to respond to rare, terrible events. Such reforms might be worthwhile, but they don’t address how to prevent such a tragedy in the first place.

It was last April 16, just after 7 a.m., that Cho killed two students in a Virginia Tech dormitory, the start of a shooting spree that continued in a classroom building and eventually claimed 33 lives, including his own.

Cho’s behavior and writing had alarmed professors and administrators, as well as the campus police, and he was put through a commitment hearing where he was found to be potentially dangerous. But when an off-campus psychiatrist sent him back to the school for outpatient treatment, there was no follow-up to ensure he got it.

People who work every day in the campus mental health field–counselors, lawyers, advocates, and students at colleges around the country–put the changes they have seen since the Virginia Tech shootings into three broad categories: identifying troubled students, rethinking privacy, and overcoming stigmas.

Identifying troubled students

Faculty are speaking up more about students who worry them. That’s accelerating a trend of more demand for mental health services that was already under way before the Virginia Tech shootings.

Professors “have a really heightened level of fear and concern from the behavior that goes on around them,” said Ben Locke, assistant director of the counseling center at Penn State University.

David Wallace, director of counseling at the University of Central Florida, said instructors are paying closer attention to violent material in writing assignments–warning bells that had worried Cho’s professors.

“Now people are wondering, ‘Is this something that could be more ominous?'” he said. “Are we talking about the Stephen Kings of the future, or about somebody who’s seriously thinking about doing something harmful?”

Mississippi State and the University of Kentucky are among the schools creating teams involving people such as resident advisers, teachers, administrators, and campus police to try to identify troubled students. Others, including Virginia Tech, that already used such “care” teams have added another layer to deal with those identified as potentially threatening.

“People who have been really depressed and are thinking about hurting themselves, these folks I think are coming to our attention a little bit earlier,” said Keith Anderson, staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Because it’s been a kind of national awakening, we have a sense of hope people will refer folks before something gets out of control.”

The downside is that officials might be hypersensitive to any eccentricity. Says Susan Davis, an attorney who works in student affairs at the University of Virginia: “There’s no question there’s some hysteria and there’s some things we don’t need to see.”

That’s a problem, because counseling centers already had their hands full. A survey last fall by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found colleges on average have just one counseling staffer for every 1,941 students. Those ratios could decline, given that some colleges are adding staff–Virginia Tech has added four, with plans for three more–but in many states the ratios are still well above the nationally recommended guideline of one counselor per 1,500 students.

Meanwhile, a recent MTV/Associated Press survey found 12 percent of college students believed “life was not worth living” at least sometimes. About 10 percent have considered suicide in the last 12 months, according to the American College Health Association, and more than 1,000 commit suicide annually.

“At Wake Forest, every year we see more people, every year the demand increases,” said Marianne Schubert, director of the university’s counseling center. But, “I don’t think people are being paranoid. I think given the circumstances of what has happened [at Virginia Tech] and the culture and society we live in, I think it’s appropriate.”

Rethinking privacy

In Virginia, a measure signed into law April 9 by Gov. Tim Kaine requires colleges to bring parents into the loop when dependent students might be a danger to themselves or others. Even before Virginia Tech, Cornell University had begun treating students as dependents of their parents unless told otherwise–an aggressive legal strategy that gives the school more leeway to contact parents with their concerns, without the students’ permission.

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