The case of Arizona shooting suspect Jared Loughner, suspended from his community college last fall after a pattern of bizarre behavior, provides another jarring reminder of the challenges colleges face dealing with troubled students.
With limited resources, complicated laws, more students in need of mental health help and echoes of the Virginia Tech massacre all part of the mix, schools face the conundrum of trying to create a safe environment without overreacting.
"What you're really doing is deciding, 'Where do I want to make the mistakes? Do I want to be over-broad in protecting civil liberties or over-broad in protecting safety?'" said Steven McDonald, general counsel for the Rhode Island School of Design and an expert on student privacy laws and campus safety. "And you're never going to get it exactly right."
McDonald said the pendulum has swung toward safety in recent years, but could swing back if schools overreach.
Many colleges and universities have started or strengthened threat assessment teams of administrators, counseling directors, campus police chiefs and others who meet regularly to field concerns about disturbing behavior and to investigate them.
But the issues are not always clear-cut. What should be protected as free speech? When does behavior cross the line from odd to potentially dangerous? When is suspension or expulsion warranted, or forced mental health treatment?
"There is a lot more awareness of the need to take action, but we are still constrained by considerations of civil liberties and the like," said Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, an umbrella group for higher education.
"It's not illegal to be a college student with mental health issues," she said. "There are plenty of them out there. It's very difficult to determine which ones merit being isolated from the college community."
Studies show more students are arriving on campus with mental health issues. A recent American College Counseling Association survey found 44 percent of students who visit college counseling centers have severe psychological disorders, up from 16 percent a decade ago. One in four students is on psychiatric medication, compared to 17 percent in 2000.
Officials at Pima Community College, where Loughner was a student, released 51 pages of police documents depicting him at times as "creepy," ''very hostile" and "having difficulty understanding what he had done wrong in the classroom."
After five incidents that drew the attention of campus police — a rambling YouTube video that called the school a scam and associated it with genocide was the final straw — school officials told Loughner and his parents that to return to classes he would need to undergo a mental health exam to show he was not a danger. He never returned.
Some critics have said the school should have gone a step further and sought to force Loughner into counseling, which Arizona state law allows. But school officials have said their response was appropriate given the circumstances.
For years, many colleges said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, handcuffed their ability to share information about troubled students with those who could help — including parents.
But McDonald, the privacy law expert, said FERPA is much less constraining than is often portrayed. A health and safety exemption allows for, say, faculty to share records with the dean of students, threat assessment teams or campus police relatively easily, he said. In 2008, Congress amended the law in responses to the Virginia Tech tragedy, making it clear schools would not be punished if they have a rational basis for taking action.
The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against persons on the basis of their disability, including mental health problems. But exemptions covering harm to self and public safety exist there, too.
"The law in these areas can be kind of complicated, and many campuses don't have legal counsel or heavy-duty mental health expertise," McDonald said. "So we're being asked to do something that is really pretty hard."
Brett Sokolow, managing partner of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, which serves as legal counsel to 16 colleges and developed a model for behavioral intervention adopted on 450 to 500 campuses, said that is especially true at community colleges such as Pima, which lacks its own mental health counseling center.
But Sokolow said the problem is not always about the amount of money, but how it is spent.
"Colleges and universities are addicted to response," he said. "They're addicted to learning how to better manage emergencies and put up more security cameras and hire more police officers when this sort of thing occurs. I have no qualms, as long as they're spending (as much) on prevention as they are on response. And of course they're not."
At the University of Texas at Austin, officials bolstered prevention efforts after the Virginia Tech shootings by starting an advice line people can call with concerns about individuals who might otherwise go unnoticed. One campus assessment team deals with employees while another meets more regularly and deals with students. Both predated the shootings.
Most students come to the team's attention through UT's discipline system because state privacy laws prevent mental health centers from divulging information from clinical settings, said Jeffery Graves, associate vice president for legal affairs. And the largest proportion of cases involves students at risk of harming themselves, he said.
Often, cases involve a student with non-threatening behavioral problems: someone who had a conflict with a roommate and had to be moved to a new dorm, or a depressed student who stopped showering and holed up in his apartment.
Such cases can be referred to campus mental health counseling or outside specialists. Graves said cases with more ominous signs are flagged as potential threats: overt threats of violence; comments made to third parties, seen as more dangerous because comments to potential victims are often no more than attempts to intimidate; and people who go from making a lot of noise to silence, which can indicate the beginning of a planning period.
The campus alert system was put to the test in September when sophomore Colton Tooley opened fire with an assault rifle on campus, fled to the sixth floor of the university library and fatally shot himself. No one else was injured.
Tooley had not triggered any of UT's alarm bells; he was an introvert who earned good grades.
But once gunfire rang out, things went according to plan: Sirens blared, a lockdown text message was blasted out, and the campus of 50,000 students and 20,000 employees emptied in minutes as everyone sought safety inside.
"The goal is to not have something happen, to keep our campus safe," Graves said. "And so far, we think we've done a pretty good job. And I think that if, God forbid, something happens and we go into reactionary mode, we're pretty well prepared there too."
No preventive step, of course, is foolproof. Gerald Amada, retired former director of the mental health program at City College of San Francisco and author of three books on disruptive college students, questioned the worth of requiring students to provide a letter from a psychologist as a condition of their return from suspension.
The majority of letters are ambiguous, loaded with qualifiers and confusing because psychologists are wary of the legal implications of seeming to sign off on a student's return to campus, he said.
Still other schools have overreacted to perceived threats, Amada said. He cited a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia who was found to be a "clear and present danger" and expelled in 2007 after posting fliers and a collage on Facebook protesting planned parking garages on campus. The state Board of Regents overturned the expulsion.
Brian Van Brunt, director of the Counseling and Testing Center at Western Kentucky University and president of the American College Counseling Association, said campuses have made much progress on moving past the "silo" mentality that can keep different departments from talking and sharing information.
Still, even in the aftermath of a tragic incident that can be picked apart for lessons, clear paths forward remain elusive.
"These incidents of violence, they occur very infrequently," Van Brunt said. "And when they do, it's hard to draw a lot of conclusions in predicting future violence."
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