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A year after Virginia Tech, sharper focus on troubled students

Many campuses have new practices.

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"Going to school is not a right; it's a privilege," says Carolyn Reinach Wolf, director of Campus Behavioral Health Risk Consultants and a lawyer in New York State. "There comes a point in time where a student just can't remain on campus."

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Still, people with mental illness shouldn't be pegged as violent – they are more often victims of crime than perpetrators, Ms. Wolf says.

Students with mental illnesses have a right to ask for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. "There are things that can be done so a student can stay and succeed," Ms. Bower says. She recalls a school that allowed parents to stay in the dorm so a student in crisis could finish final exams before leaving.

If people can continue their education, they are less likely to have long-term mental disabilities, says Cheryl Gagne, a senior training associate at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, which works with colleges nationwide to help their students stay enrolled in school.

One key to deciding how to handle students with severe problems, these experts say, is to have a team assess each case based on the medical, legal, and ethical issues at stake. Many schools have formed such teams since the Virginia Tech shootings. Among the new laws signed by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine April 9 is a requirement that colleges create threat-assessment teams, as well as policies about informing parents of dependent students at imminent risk of harming themselves or others.

When Boston University formed a task force in the wake of Virginia Tech, it was already "ahead of the eight ball" with coordinated mental-health efforts, says Ms. Gagne.

BU launched a website recently called Helping Students in Distress, part of a larger trend on a number of campuses to encourage everyone – roommates, cleaning staff, police – to watch for signs of mental-health problems and connect people with support.

"Nobody is at all interested in keeping people out, but they just want to be helpful and aware and protective of the community," says Margaret Ross, BU's director of Behavioral Medicine (a term for mental health). She's part of the "care team" set up last year to assess situations that might be dangerous.

The team, including police and senior administrators, met recently after a student communicated to someone on campus in a way that seemed threatening. Two people had interviewed the student to see if there might be psychological issues. A background check found no history of violence, which generally would lower the threshold for imposing a leave, Dr. Ross says.

The team agreed there was no threat after all. But it was an opportunity to realize that incidents like the shootings at Virginia Tech may not be as top of mind for students as they are for college staff. Ross says that when she asked the student to be more mindful that certain statements might appear threatening, she said, " 'You probably remember Virginia Tech?' And [the student] said, 'Oh, I hadn't even thought of that.' "