In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, federal officials are trying to clarify privacy guidelines so faculty won’t hesitate to report potential threats.

On April 15, Sen. James Webb, D-Va., introduced legislation aimed at making it easier for colleges to share information about students who might be a danger to themselves or others. The legislation would amend the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) to clarify when educators may legally release information about a troubled student.

The U.S. Department of Education also has proposed new regulations to help educators interpret the law. The proposals include protections for educators who share information to protect a student’s health or safety, new guidelines for schools on sharing student data with educational researchers, and a requirement that schools safeguard electronic student information. Federal officials are seeking public comments on the proposed rule changes by May 8.

“Nobody’s throwing privacy out the window, but we are coming out of an era when individual rights were paramount on college campuses,” said Brett Sokolow, who advises colleges on risk management. “What colleges are struggling with now is a better balance of those individual rights and community protections.”

The big change since the Virginia Tech shootings, legal experts say, is that colleges have shed some of their fear of violating FERPA. Many faculty hadn’t realized that the law applies only to educational records, not observations of classroom behavior, or that it contains numerous exceptions for potential safety threats.

In any case, colleges have concluded it’s better to risk a mistake on FERPA than miss the danger signs in a student like Cho.

“You have to choose your lawsuit,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, the Washington D.C.-based umbrella organization that represents colleges.

Still, while conversations with therapists almost always stay private, some worry about the perception that confidentiality is no longer the top priority. There’s no way to measure how many students aren’t getting treatment.

“The real balancing act is, are you chilling the mental health treatment you want these students to receive?” said UVA’s Davis. “Are they going to stop going to these centers because there’s this state law out there that says you have to call mom and dad?”

Overcoming stigmas

As news of the Virginia Tech shootings broke, Erica Hamilton was one of many people who worried the violence could prompt a backlash against the mentally ill, discouraging treatment and leading to misguided new laws.

“I was really nervous,” said Hamilton, a student at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro who works with Active Minds, a mental health advocacy group with chapters at 127 colleges. “It shined a negative light on people who have mental illness.”

On balance, Hamilton says that hasn’t happened. But the tone of some of the debate remains a concern.

“In general, the attention to campus mental health was desperately needed,” said Alison Malmon, founder of the national Active Minds group. But some of the debate, she added, “has turned in a direction that does not necessarily support students.” All the talk of “threat assessments” and better-trained campus SWAT teams, she said, has distracted the public from the fact that the mentally ill rarely commit violence–especially against others.

“I know that, for many students, it made them feel more stigmatized,” Malmon said. “It made them more likely to keep their mental health history silent.”

The media has often drifted toward coverage of campus police training and emergency text-messaging systems. Malmon isn’t saying money spent on those areas was wasted. She just doesn’t want anyone to think it will prevent another Virginia Tech.

Sokolow, the risk consultant for colleges, estimated in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech and NIU shootings that the schools he works with spent $25 on police and communications for every $1 on mental health. Only recently has he seen a shift.

At Florida’s public universities, the board of governors last month approved an $18 million request to the legislature to fund police and emergency warning systems that a state task force called for. The board also approved recommendations of a task force on mental health care, which found Florida schools needed 92 more counselors to reach the recommended ratio. But there has been no funding request yet. The report suggested the state lift caps on student fees.

Bill Edmonds, a spokesman for Florida’s board, said it recognizes the need for more counselors and is exploring ways to fund them.

“Campuses come to me, they want me to help them start behavioral intervention systems,” Sokolow said. “Then they go to the president to get the money and, oh, well, the money went into the door locks.”

Phone messaging systems and security are important, he said, but “there is nothing about text messaging that is going to prevent violence.”

Links:

Education Department’s Family Policy Compliance Office

American Council on Education

American College Health Association

Active Minds