Still, a huge obstacle to effective communication—and a source of frustration to worried parents—is the mistaken belief that privacy laws bar any sharing of information, either with others on campus or in a call home. Government analyses of the Virginia Tech massacre say that teachers, staff, and parents have more freedom than they think. Counseling and medical records are confidential once a child is 18. But professors and other staff who aren't mental-health professionals can discuss concerns about a student among themselves and contact parents, too. Gregory Eells, head of the counseling center at Cornell, says that residence hall advisers sometimes tell him that they can't pass on worrisome information because it was communicated in confidence. "I say, no, actually you can report it, and you should," Eells says. "You can talk to parents; you can talk to anyone you think appropriate."
Whether counselors call parents is a trickier question, one that weighs the privacy rights of the student against the therapeutic benefit. Sometimes parents can motivate their child to work on changing a bad situation, says Eells, and "sometimes involving the parents makes it worse."
Beyond the medical arena, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act turns control of student records over to the student at age 18. But according to the Department of Education, parents have the right to academic and disciplinary information in many circumstances: when they claim the student as a dependent on their tax returns, when the school considers the situation to be a health or safety emergency, and when the student is under 21 and has been caught using alcohol or illegal drugs.
Once it's clear that someone is distressed, schools are more often approaching the student directly. "Many schools with worrisome students are setting up contracts with them," says Harvard's Kadison. "If they want to stay in school, there's a reasonable expectation that they're getting care, that they're showing up for appointments." Students who appear to be in danger or who are disruptive may be placed on involuntary leave and be reassessed before they can re-enter. But not all schools manage involuntary leaves appropriately, argues Karen Bower, attorney for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. She says that she hears of more and more cases in which students were placed on leave merely because they were experiencing the ups and downs of mental illness. In one recent example, a student was asked to leave campus after he sought help dealing with a bad reaction to the sleeping pill Ambien.
"People should feel safe in getting mental-health counseling," Bower says. The tragedy would only be compounded, she thinks, if Virginia Tech becomes an excuse to stereotype people with mental illness and bar them from campus.
Some resources for families:
Services. The suicide-prevention-oriented JED Foundation offers a checklist for quality mental-health care.
Civil rights. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law describes how rights should be protected.
Privacy laws. Provisions are explained at www.ed.gov.