Schools seek aid to track trouble
After Tucson, more are refining procedures
College mental health workers report greater concern about disruptive students since the mass shooting in Tucson, resulting in more calls from faculty, requests for special training and reassessments of campus procedures.
Faculty members are seeking advice on dealing with disruptive outbursts and intimidating behavior, says Brian Van Brunt, president of the American College Counseling Association.
Jared Loughner, 22, is accused of shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people, six fatally, Jan. 8. He was attending Pima Community College in November when he was banned from campus for outbursts that scared students and teachers.
At Western Kentucky University, where Van Brunt is director of counseling, staffers “are looking at what would we do if we had a similar case,” he says. His university has three or four students a year who exhibit a worrisome combination of self-isolation and simmering aggression, he says, and they’re required to accept treatment on campus as a condition of staying in school.
Several schools are expanding mental health services by making part-time counselors full-time or adding private counselors, says Brett Sokolow of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association.
Many colleges added behavioral intervention teams after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, when student Seung Hui Cho killed 33 people, including himself. Usually, a team of counselors, teachers and campus police meets regularly to track complaints about disturbing behavior from instructors, dormitory workers and others. The team assesses the threat and coordinates action.
Membership in the association jumped 14% to 578 schools since the Arizona shooting.
Bookings for training rose from 16 schools in all of December to 17 in the first 10 days after the shooting, says Scott Lewis of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a law firm that advises colleges on intervention teams.
Gaston College in Dallas, N.C., hired Lewis before the shooting to discuss behavioral intervention teams. Now a team is more likely to become a reality, says Wanda Wyont, director of retention.
“We’re all going to take more caution and maybe develop procedures that would help us identify behavior that could be a problem,” Wyont says.
At Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, counselors are making a video to remind staff to refer students who hint of suicide or violence to counseling, or call police if danger looms, says Estela Gutierrez, director of counseling.
At Jackson Community College in Jackson, Mich., a student was taken for a hospital evaluation and banned from campus Jan. 14 after ranting at a student advocate, says Cindy Allen, director of community relations. The student was allowed back last week, she says, after a dean “made sure he understood that . . . you shouldn’t make statements that can be misconstrued as threatening.”
RICHMOND, Ky. — No one gathered around the conference table here is pointing fingers at Pima Community College.
As the staffers at Eastern Kentucky University who step in when students show signs of trouble, they know firsthand the challenges of dealing with someone like Jared Loughner, the suspended Pima student who is accused in this month’s deadly Arizona shootings.
Yet the Tucson tragedy hangs in the air during a recent training session. Just as colleges nationwide ramped up efforts to make their campuses safer after the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, the link between Pima Community College and the Arizona shooting s has prompted colleges to again review their practices. One recurring question: How and when to inter - vene?
The National Behavioral Intervention Team Association , whose members include hundreds of colleges , defende d the Tucson school against those who say it could have done more. “Pima’s job was to protect its students, employees and facilities first, and Loughner second, if it could. Pima did its job,” it said.
Even so, Brett Sokolow, the association’s executive director, says many colleges could be more diligent. Too often, “they focus on the tyranny of the immediate, and lose sight of the students (they) should be tracking,” he says.
Schools strike a balance
Some schools have been accused of going too far. A new policy allowing North Carolina community colleges to deny admission to students whom officials consider a threat could discriminate against applicants with mental illness, disabilities rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union argue. The policy, proposed in August and approved Friday by a state board, could go into effect April 1.
Iraq War veteran Charles Whittington says officials at the Community College of Baltimore County overreacted in November when they barred him from campus on the condition he get a psychiatric evaluation. The school newspaper had just published his essay for an English class in which he wrote that killing “is really addictive.”
“I’m not there to cause anybody harm, or to threaten anybody,” Whittington told CNN. “I’m just trying to spread awareness. It’s like therapy for myself.” Most colleges have the authority to suspend or expel students they think could harm others. Here at Eastern Kentucky, which enrolls about 16,500 students, Dean of Students Claire Good makes no apologies. “We have erred on the side of caution, and we’ll continue to do so,” she says.
A more pressing concern, she says, is how to encourage more people on campus to speak up when they see worrisome behavior. Good follows up on any tip she gets but says reporting is spotty.
That’s why she is training faculty, housing staff and others across campus who interact regularly with students, on how to identify and report red flags more effectively. At the training session, they learn that concrete, measurable examples — staring in class, say, or disruptive behavior — are more helpful than subjective impressions, such as that a student is acting weird.
The data will go into a new software program, allowing Good’s Student Assistance and Intervention Team — eight core staffers, including counselors and campus police — to collect reports gathered across campus into one place. With that information, the team can monitor the student to determine whether aggressive behavior is escalating.
“It’s like a neighborhood watch but a lot more sophisticated,” says Ron Ben-Zeev, president of the Center for Aggression Management, which developed the software.
Spotting struggle — or trouble
There are gray areas. During one case study, team members debated whether various incidents were clues that a student was troubled or one who was grappling awkwardly with new ideas. The exercise, based on a real incident at another school, involved a Christian student opposed to stem cell research who one day stormed out of biology class after an emotional outburst.
“On the very first day (of college) the beliefs they’ve had for the last 18 years are being challenged,” says Eastern Kentucky housing director Kenna Middleton. “Religion is one of those pivotal things. Developmentally, many students don’t have the skills to deal with (their) raw emotions.”
Trainer John Byrnes acknowledged that questionable behavior could add up to nothing. But without enough data, there’s no way to know for sure. “This is not profiling — it’s observing,” he says.
Good, whose team is looking into reports on about 15 students at any one time, says records remain confidential, and stresses that the goal isn’t to punish students but to help them get the care they need.
In some cases, students are grateful. Eastern Kentucky student Thomas Johnson, 29, is taking this semester off, on Good’s recommendation, after faculty and friends noticed he had stopped showing up for class or work.
“I was holing myself up in my apartment and drinking the whole time,” says Johnson, 29, who works, attends 12-step programs and lives in a sober-living group home. “I felt like it was them reaching out because they care about me.”
“They care about me”: Thomas Johnson, 29, is taking a semester off from Eastern Kentucky University after friends noticed he stopped showing up for class. He works at Hitachi Automotive Systems, in Berea.
“Not profiling, observing”: John Byrnes, founder of the Center for Aggression Management, teaches students to look out for aggression.