- Associated Press - Monday, January 17, 2011

The case of Arizona shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner, suspended from his community college in the 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 overbroad in protecting civil liberties or overbroad in protecting safety?’” said Steven J. 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.”

Mr. 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 investigate them.

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Loughner into counseling, which Arizona state law allows. 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 Mr. McDonald 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 that 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. However, 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,” Mr. 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.

However, he 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. The largest proportion of cases involves students at risk of harming themselves, he said.

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