- 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.

** FILE ** Victims of the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech are carried out of Norris Hall. The mass shooting caused many colleges to reassess security measures, but dealing with troubled students remains a difficult issue. (AP Photo)
** FILE ** Victims of the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech ... more >

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.

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