Thursday, January 13, 2011

Campus turmoil and suggested policies

This never was a problem in my era--the 60s. But then we [professors included] were a bit nutty anyway.

"College’s Policy on Troubled Students Raises Questions"


A. G. Sulzberger and Trip Gabriel

January 13th, 2011

The New York Times

Many people had a glimpse of the deep delusions and festering anger of Jared L. Loughner, but none seemed in a better position to connect the dots than officials at Pima Community College.

After the release of detailed reports the college kept of Mr. Loughner’s bizarre outbursts and violent Internet fantasies, the focus has turned to whether it did all it could to prevent his apparent descent into explosive violence.

In September, Pima suspended Mr. Loughner and told him not to return without a psychologist’s letter certifying that he posed no danger. But it took no steps to mandate that he have a psychiatric evaluation, which in Arizona is easier than in many states.

Laura J. Waterman, the clinical director of the Southern Arizona Mental Health Corporation in Tucson, criticized Pima officials for not seeking an involuntary evaluation. “Where does it reach a level where you say this person shouldn’t be a part of any community and we have a responsibility to do something about that?” she said.

Dr. Waterman’s clinic, which offers walk-in psychiatric crisis care, is one of the agencies Pima refers students to when they need mental health services, including students who have been suspended like Mr. Loughner.

No record of Mr. Loughner’s seeking or receiving mental health care has surfaced.

“It is part of our practice to provide students with information of where they can go,” said Charlotte Fugett, an official at the college. “It’s their responsibility to find a practitioner.”

Pima, a low-cost commuter school with 68,400 students, is typical of community colleges in having no mental health center of its own. At residential colleges, the centers can make it easier to connect needy students to psychologists.

Paul Schwalbach, a college spokesman, said of Mr. Loughner, “His behavior, while clearly disturbing, was not a crime, and we dealt with it in a way that protected our students and our employees.”

Last year, Pima updated its policies for dealing with disturbed students, as did campuses across the country after several deadly shootings, including the killing of 32 at Virginia Tech.

The college created a team of senior officials to identify students who might pose a threat to themselves or others. They began meeting the same month that Mr. Loughner was suspended.

Paradoxically, suspending students like Mr. Loughner may push them over the edge by adding to their grievances and isolating them from people who could monitor them, said experts on campus violence.

Gene Deisinger, the director of threat management at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va., speaking in general about the dismissal of a disruptive student, said, “We should never treat that as a panacea that increases our safety.”

When Virginia Tech removes a threatening student or staff member — as it does about a dozen times a year — the campus police or sometimes a psychologist now monitor the person’s progress when it is practical and merited, Dr. Deisinger said.

Marisa Randazzo, co-author of a sweeping 2002 federal study of school violence after the Columbine shootings, said most gunmen experienced a personal loss before their outbursts. If a school expels a threatening student, she said, “you are now adding to the person’s losses, even if you’re within your legal rights to do so.”

“At the same time, you’re losing your own ability to keep an eye on their behavior or have a positive effect,” she said.

Mr. Loughner, 22, who has been accused of killing 6 people and wounding 14, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, at a Safeway store in Tucson on Saturday, did not return to his former campus or workplace for a shooting spree.

On the Northwest Campus where he took many of his classes from 2005-10, a group of students on break Wednesday debated how the college had handled him.

Moises Melgarejo, 18, said he wondered if the act of suspending Mr. Loughner had not left him precariously unrooted. “He wasn’t going to school, he wasn’t working, he was just sitting at home thinking whatever he was thinking,” he said.

Denise Hayes, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, said Pima had done what most colleges would in placing the responsibility to get a mental health exam on the student, especially since, as the college says, it also delivered the ultimatum to Mr. Loughner’s parents, with whom he lived.

The nationwide adoption of campus threat teams like Pima’s — which typically meet once a week on large campuses, often below the radar of students — has been rapid since investigations of the Virginia Tech massacre showed that many people and departments had clear signs of the instability of the gunman, Seung Hui Cho, but no one connected the information.

Virginia and Illinois passed laws requiring colleges and universities to establish multidisciplinary threat-evaluation teams. Today, more than half of the country’s 4,500 colleges and universities “acknowledge the need and have formed some capacity” to assess student threats, said Steven Healy, a former Princeton University police chief, who leads training programs in threat assessment under a grant from the Justice Department. On Tuesday, he was leading a workshop for 70 educators in Phoenix, which he began with a moment of silence.

At Virginia Tech, the Threat Assessment Team — a national model, whose members include the dean of students; the director of counseling; a university lawyer; and Dr. Deisinger, a psychologist who also holds the title of deputy police chief — meets weekly, discussing 6 to 20 cases.

A campus Web site about the team answers a hypothetical question, “Can’t you just make people leave campus if they are a problem?” in this way: “When people remain part of the Virginia Tech community, on-campus resources are available to them, and campus administrators are in contact with them to provide support they might not have if they were removed.”

In Arizona, people can be sent involuntarily for a mental health exam after any concerned party applies for a court-ordered evaluation, which can lead to mandated treatment.

Stella Bay, the police chief for Pima, said the college could initiate an involuntary evaluation only if a student posed “an imminent danger.”

But that assertion seemed to reflect a misunderstanding of the state’s laws regarding involuntary evaluations. Dr. Waterman, of the Southern Arizona Mental Health Corporation, said a mandated evaluation required only some evidence of danger. “It’s a broader standard,” she said. “And it costs nothing to make a phone call and talk about it and consult with a professional.”

Since the weekend shootings, the number of petitions for mandated exams at Dr. Waterman’s clinic has increased, she said, presumably because of wide awareness of the issue now. In fact, Ms. Bay called in a case on Monday about a Pima student, Dr. Waterman said. The police brought the student right to a hospital to be evaluated.

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