Could more have been done?

A creepy stu­dent was sus­pended, but not treated.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

IT IS HARD to read the re­ports of Pima Com­mu­nity Col­lege of­fi­cials de­tail­ing their en­coun­ters with Jared L. Lough­ner in Ari­zona with­out think­ing how their cau­tion in deal­ing with this dis­turbed young man was shaped by the aw­ful lessons of Vir­ginia Tech. It is equally dif­fi­cult not to won­der if they could, and should, have done more. We say that not to blame but in the hope that just as the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings spurred needed ac­tions at cam­puses across the coun­try so will the tragedy in Tuc­son re­sult in im­proved ways to deal with trou­bled stu­dents.

Col­lege of­fi­cials re­leased con­fi­den­tial re­ports that doc­u­ment the in­creas­ing con­cern with which they came to view Mr. Lough­ner, ac­cused in the Jan. 8 shoot­ing of 19 peo­ple, six of whom died. The 22-year-old was the sub­ject of five com­plaints over eight months in 2010. Us­ing words like “creepy,” “very hos­tile” and “sus­pi­cious,” teach­ers and fel­low stu­dents told po­lice they were fright­ened by his be­hav­ior. Cam­pus po­lice re­sponded promptly with a se­ries of es­ca­lat­ing ac­tions, from warn­ings by po­lice to re­peated meet­ings with coun­selors and ad­min­is­tra­tors to, fi­nally, his sus­pen­sion in Septem­ber. Mr. Lough­ner al­lowed school of­fi­cials to share in­for­ma­tion with his par­ents, and it ap­pears that his mother was present for two meet­ings; cam­pus po­lice spoke to his fa­ther when they de­liv­ered the sus­pen­sion let­ter to his home.

In sus­pend­ing Mr. Lough­ner, the col­lege told him he could not re­turn with­out a mental health eval­u­a­tion cer­ti­fy­ing he didn’t pose a dan­ger; it’s a com­mon pro­ce­dure used in higher ed­u­ca­tion to en­cour­age peo­ple to get help. But — here’s where the sec­ond-guess­ing be­gins— of­fi­cials did not take steps to make that hap­pen. It doesn’t ap­pear that Mr. Lough­ner sought or re­ceived treat­ment on his own. Should the col­lege have ini­ti­ated an in­vol­un­tary mental eval­u­a­tion, a process eas­ier in Ari­zona than many states? Did it do enough to en­gage the par­ents, who pro­fessed in a state­ment, “We don’t un­der­stand why this hap­pened”?

We don’t have easy an­swers to these ques­tions. As strange as Mr. Lough­ner’s ac­tions seemed and as wor­ried as oth­ers were, he had bro­ken no laws, he was ori­ented in time and place, and he had no his­tory of vi­o­lence. Of­fi­cials did not see an im­mi­nent threat or dan­ger, and, as such, it’s ques­tion­able whether his con­di­tion would have met the cri­te­ria for in­vol­un­tary treat­ment. Keep in mind that three months lapsed be­tween his sus­pen­sion and the shoot­ings at the gro­cery store; psy­chi­a­trists say that it is nearly im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict if some­one is go­ing to be­come vi­o­lent.

The same month that Mr. Lough­ner was sus­pended, the col­lege re­vamped its pro­ce­dures for deal­ing with trou­bled stu­dents, es­tab­lish­ing a team that in­cludes an out­side clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist to as­sess and as­sist in cases. It’s hard to say if that would have pre­vented the aw­ful events with which Mr. Lough­ner is charged, but it’s one of the ques­tions that Pima — and col­lege of­fi­cials ev­ery­where — should be ask­ing.

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