- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008


The rampage carried out nearly a year ago by a mentally ill Virginia Tech student who slipped through the mental-health system has changed how American colleges reach out to troubled students.

Administrators are pushing students harder to get help, looking more aggressively for signs of trouble and urging faculty to speak up when they have concerns. Counselors say the changes are sending more students their way.

Colleges have edged away in the past year from decades-old practices that made student privacy paramount. Now, they are more likely to err on the side of sharing information if there is any possible threat to community safety. But some who say the changes are appropriate worry that it could discourage students from seeking treatment.

Concerns also linger that the response to shooters like Seung-hui Cho at Virginia Tech has focused excessively on boosting the capacity of campus police to respond to such events. Those reforms may be worthwhile, but they don’t address how to prevent such a tragedy in the first place.

It was April 16, just after 7 a.m., when Cho killed two students in a Virginia Tech dormitory, the start of a shooting spree that continued in a classroom building and eventually claimed 33 lives, including Cho’s.

Cho’s behavior and writings had alarmed professors, administrators and campus police, and he was put through a commitment hearing at which he was found to be potentially dangerous. But when an off-campus psychiatrist sent him back to the school for outpatient treatment, there was no follow-up to ensure he got it.

People who work in the campus mental health field put the changes that they have seen since the Cho shootings into three broad categories.

• Identifying troubled students. Faculty are speaking up more about students who worry them.

Professors “have a really heightened level of fear and concern from the behavior that goes on around them,” said Ben Locke, assistant director of the counseling center at Penn State University.

• Privacy. In Virginia, a measure signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Tim Kaine requires colleges to bring parents into the loop when dependent students may be a danger to themselves or others. Cornell University began treating students as dependents of their parents unless told otherwise.

The big change since the Virginia Tech shootings, legal experts say, is that colleges have shed some of their fear of violating the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

• Stigma. As news of the Virginia Tech shootings broke, Erica Hamilton was worried the violence could prompt a backlash against the mentally ill, discouraging treatment and leading to misguided laws.

“It shined a negative light on people who have mental illness,” said the student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who works with Active Minds, a mental health advocacy group with chapters at 127 colleges.

On balance, she says that hasn’t happened. But the tone of some of the debate remains a concern.

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