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Colleges walk fine line with troubled students

The tragedy at Virginia Tech has prompted calls for more security and less privacy.

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In fact, just a few weeks ago, Virginia became the first state to bar colleges and universities from expelling or punishing a student solely on mental-health or suicide-risk grounds. Federal disability law also protects students unless they make direct threats, and privacy law keeps institutions from letting parents know of their children's problems and often from sharing information among officials.

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While there are exceptions for emergencies, those are often unclear. Virginia is one of a handful of states that has refused to follow the California Tarasoff decision that requires counselors or psychiatrists to breach confidentiality if there seems to be clear danger.

At the same time, universities across the country are seeing a significant rise in the number of students diagnosed with depression and other mental-health issues, in part because of the advancement in psychiatry that often allow such students to live more mainstream lives.

Smith, for one, would like to see the emergency exceptions and actions a school could take increased and clarified.

"If we can't screen, ... if we can't get our arms around it and intervene when it arises, if we can't make them take involuntary leave and get help and come back only when they've satisfied us they're not a threat – if we're hindered in that, then how fair is it to hold us liable?" he asks.

In Blacksburg, where students and faculty are still reeling from the deaths, some seem to agree.

As students learned more about Cho after viewing TV footage from the "multi-media manifesto" he sent between the two shootings to NBC, they debated the difficult spot in which Cho's behavior placed Virginia Tech's administration.

"It's obvious that this kid ... wasn't mentally stable and that they admitted him for counseling, but at the time it would be unreasonable to kick him out of school," says sophomore Christopher Saunders.

But some would like to see schools given more leeway in dealing with students showing the sort of warning signs Cho displayed. "They should give them a year off to go home and ... if, after that year, they're doing better, they should be allowed to return," says grad student Jinsong Chen.

While it's easy to declare that Cho's signs should have merited expulsion or mandatory detention, such calls are harder to make at the time.

Predicting how a student will behave based on threat-assessment models is impossible, notes Gary Pavela, a recently retired administrator from the University of Maryland. Punishing someone because they fit certain criteria runs the risk that the label will stick or be a self-fulfilling prophecy. "No one wants these vague standards that can be interpreted in multiple ways applied to them," he notes.

Still, Pavela ticks off steps that colleges can take. Some schools have a coordinated emergency evaluation team that includes campus police, mental-health experts, and student-conduct officials whose intervention can be triggered by multiple reports of incidents involving one student. Such a team – which requires a system for reporting concerns to a single place – can help establish a pattern of behavior.

Meanwhile, a few have raised questions about whether Cho's brief brush with a magistrate – who ordered that Cho be evaluated at Carilion Saint Albans Behavioral Health Center in 2005 – and the resulting overnight stay there should have kept him from being able to buy guns. Cho was referred to outpatient care after the stay.

Since his stay was noted as voluntary, the information did not have to be reported to the state or the FBI.

A bill was introduced to Congress in 2005 that would have reviewed weaknesses in the NICS background-check system, including the reporting of mental illness, but was never passed. It has been reintroduced this year.

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