Universities Take Steps to Prevent the Next Rampage

This fall, campuses have beefed up mental health counseling and intervention plans.

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Members of the Virginia Tech Marching Band embrace Aug. 19 after a dedication ceremony for the memorial of the victims of the April 16 shooting.

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As students return to campuses across the nation, college administrators face the first test of their efforts to inoculate campuses against the sort of horrific violence that hit Virginia Tech last April, when a student killed 32 other students and faculty members, then committed suicide.

Much of the effort focuses on campus mental health services, because Seung Hui Cho, the student who perpetrated the shootings, had appeared deeply troubled prior to his rampage and had been briefly hospitalized for being suicidal. It's not clear whether Cho ever got further counseling. "It seems like he just went off the radar someplace," says Keith Anderson, a staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "We need to find ways to make sure those cases don't go off the radar until we're sure everyone's OK." Schools are trying a variety of methods:

· Penn State's Altoona campus is stationing counselors in dormitories in the evening for the first four to six weeks of school.

· All people who go to the University of Wisconsin campus health center will be screened for anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, and unhealthy eating—even if they just go in for a sprained ankle.

· Virginia Tech offered drop-in counseling for students as they returned to school, at the student center and at a tent on the campus's historic Drillfield.

"The role of the counseling center is ready for a major change as a result of [the shooting at] Virginia Tech," says Gary Pavela, former director for judicial programs at the University of Maryland, who advises colleges on campus security. "Many counseling centers had kind of an Olympian model. They were there at the top of the hill, and if you needed and wanted help they were there for you."

That's no longer enough, mental health experts say, because more students struggle with serious mental illness on campus than in years past. Nine percent of college students have seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to the fall 2006 National College Health Assessment. Allan Glass, director of the Habif Health and Wellness Center at Washington University in St. Louis, says he recently came across a school publication from 15 or 20 years ago that detailed how the counseling service helped students with adjustment disorders, homesickness, and occasionally depression. "Now depressed students on college campuses are very, very common," Glass says, "and we're seeing increased numbers of students with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia."

Identifying students in trouble can be difficult, particularly at big schools like Virginia Tech. Even when it's obvious that a student is in trouble, it's often hard for faculty, staff, and other students to know what to do, and it's harder for the system to follow through. One of the poignant aspects of Cho's case was that several English teachers reached out to him and tried to get him help, seemingly to no avail. To keep students from falling through the cracks, some campuses already had intervention teams, which pull in people from many disciplines—administrators, campus police, housing advisers, counselors, and teachers. They may meet weekly to discuss students who appear to be struggling and to work out a response plan. At Rensselaer, faculty and staff can log concerns for the intervention team on a website. This spring, there were 838 warnings posted on the online system, most of them for students with academic problems. A number of other schools are working to adopt Rensselaer's model.

Now even schools that have intervention teams are thinking hard about how they determine which students are in trouble. They're also hearing from worried employees who want more training on how to spot signs of serious trouble and how to tell a troubled student from one who's just odd. Virginia Tech started the year with training classes for faculty and staff on "Identifying and Referring the Distressed Student." Other schools offer brochures, and Glass says he could see Washington University's brochure evolving into an online class.