What Went Wrong?
The insanity and mayhem unleashed at Virginia Tech was a random and rare event. But unlike some unfathomable crimes, this one has a long enough trail of miscalculation and oversight to raise serious questions about safety on campus. The shooter's troubling behavior, his gun purchases, and the campus response on the day of the shooting all hold broader lessons for other colleges, where security issues are notoriously swept out of sight and statistics are hard to come by
Cornell, like many universities, has in recent years intensified its work to detect troubled students and lure them in for treatment. Four years ago, the school started training faculty and staff in how to recognize mental health problems and convince students that going for counseling is "smart" and "strong." Two psychologists are detailed full time to talk with professors and other community members who are worried about students. A phone triage service offers students instant telephone counseling, and informal "let's talk" hours station psychologists and social workers in campus buildings where people live and work.
Last fall, Cornell started screening all students who come to the health service for depression, even if they're just there to get a sprained ankle checked out. And like other schools, Cornell has created a multidisciplinary SWAT team comprising therapists, police, the dean of students, and dorm staffers who meet to discuss troubled students and create a coordinated response. All told, Eells says, students have many more opportunities for free, professional mental health care than young adults who aren't in school. That, he says, along with the lack of firearms on campus, helps account for the fact that suicide rates on American campuses are just half of those among young adults in general.
Campuses are also rethinking how-and whether-to get problem kids off the campus. Expelling students who are mentally ill is a hugely controversial act. Just weeks before the Tech shootings, Virginia became the first state in the nation to pass a law prohibiting schools from ousting students just because they have mental problems or are considered a suicide risk. The law was prompted by several widely publicized lawsuits, including two last year. In one, the City University of New York paid $65,000 to a student who sued because she was barred from her dorm after being hospitalized for a suicide attempt. And in the other, George Washington University reached a private settlement with a student who sued after it suspended him when he sought hospitalization for depression. "Everybody's looking at this in a liability context," says Karen Bower, an attorney for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, who represented Jordan Nott, the GWU student. "It's really not about liability. It's about stereotypes about mental illness." Nott sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act, saying the university had discriminated against him because he was depressed.
In the wake of the slayings, more university administrators will turn to mandatory medical withdrawal as the solution, predicts Gary Pavela, retired director of judicial programs for the University of Maryland. That would be a mistake, he says. Even though the law presumes that young people on campus are adults and should be treated that way, parents feel that many a 20-year-old is just starting on the path to independence.
Still, campus mental health experts say that offering a student an honorable way to take a mental health break is often the best solution, particularly for students who are struggling with isolation and loneliness. "Families can be very helpful and supportive, even though students often feel that they don't want to add pressure or stress to their families, who have often made big sacrifices to support them," says Richard Kadison, director of Harvard's mental health service and author of Col lege of the Overwhelmed. In some cases, Kadison says, parents might want to consider if a child would do better living at home and attending a school nearby.