Year after shootings, impact felt at campus mental health
By Justin Pope
The rampage carried out nearly a year ago by a deranged 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 even more students their way, which is both welcome and a challenge, given that many still lack the resources to handle their growing workloads.
Behind those changes, colleges have edged away in the last year from decades-old practices that made student privacy paramount. Now, they are more likely to err on the side of sharing information — with the police, for instance, and parents — if there is any possible threat to community safety. But even some who say the changes are appropriate worry it could discourage students from seeking treatment.
Concerns also linger that the response to shooters like Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech and Steven Kazmierczak, who killed five others at Northern Illinois University, has focused excessively on boosting the capacity of campus police to respond to rare, terrible events. Such reforms may be worthwhile, but they don’t address how to prevent such a tragedy in the first place.
It was last April 16, just after 7 a.m., that 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 his own.
Cho’s behavior and writing had alarmed professors and administrators, as well as the campus police, and he was put through a commitment hearing where 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 every day in the campus mental health field — counselors, lawyers, advocates and students at colleges around the country — put the changes they have seen since the Cho shootings into three broad categories.
IDENTIFYING TROUBLED STUDENTS. Faculty are speaking up more about students who worry them. That’s accelerating a trend of more demand for m student fees.
Bill Edmonds, a spokesman for Florida’s board, said it recognizes the need for more counselors and is exploring ways to fund them.
"Campuses come to me, they want me to help them start behavioral intervention systems," Sokolow said. "Then they go to the president to get the money and, oh, well, the money went into the door locks."
Phone messaging systems and security are nice, he said, but "there is nothing about text-messaging that is going to prevent violence."