Thursday, March 3, 2011

Professor Lucinda Roy’s Article in The Chronicle following the Tuscon Tragedy

Below is an excellent article written by Virginia Tech’s Professor Lucinda Roy. It appeared in “The Chronicle” on February 12, 2011. I am posting the article in its entirety.

After Tucson: a Personal Assessment of Higher Education's Response to Threats

By Lucinda Roy

A few weeks after Jared Lee Loughner's attack in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson, the jury is still out about whether more could have been done to prevent the rampage. The spotlight has fallen on officials at Pima Community College because it was there that Loughner's strange behavior was noticed and documented, resulting in his suspension some three months prior to his rampage.

The phrase "Hindsight is 20/20" is being invoked frequently, just as it was after Seung-Hui Cho's attack in 2007 at Virginia Tech. How could anyone have known Jared Lee Loughner was as unstable and potentially homicidal as that? Besides, he wasn't even a student at Pima anymore. Moreover, it's impossible to predict attacks like these, and there's not much, if anything, you can do in America if deeply disturbed people are determined to go on a shooting spree.

At first glance, it looks as though officials at Pima had learned from the errors made by Virginia Tech and avoided making the same ones themselves. Instead of shuffling an unresponsive student through an unresponsive system, they had taken action to keep their campus safe. After viewing Loughner's menacing YouTube video, in which he appears to be fantasizing about harming people on the campus, they issued a letter of immediate suspension in September 2010. They also placed stringent conditions upon his return: Unless he obtained a mental-health clearance, Loughner could not come back to the campus.

Nor did college officials' due diligence end there. Aware of the fact that Loughner's behavior suggested he may not be able to make crucial decisions on his own behalf, law-enforcement officials hand-delivered the letter of suspension to Loughner's home. It's commendable that they did so. Again, this suggests that Pima officials had learned from Virginia Tech's mistakes. (Even though Cho had threatened suicide and was held overnight at a mental-health facility, his parents were never notified that he was in trouble.)

According to the statement issued by Pima following the shootings, Jared Loughner and his parents were also advised to attend a meeting with college administrators about his violation of the college's code of conduct, which they did in October.

During this meeting, Loughner indicated that he would withdraw from the college. A follow-up letter was sent to him three days later, indicating that if he intended to return, he had to resolve his code-of-conduct violations and obtain the mental-health clearance indicating, in the opinion of a mental-health professional, that his presence at the college did not present a danger to himself or others.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told The Washington Post that he supported Pima Community College's decision: "From what I read, they said to the family that 'he needs some help, and we won't take him back until you get him some help.' I'm not quite sure what else that community college can do. ... If I was the chancellor of that community college, I think that would have been my response."

Yet when you start to peel off the layers of that argument, it seems to have numerous flaws.

I think it's very likely that the members of Pima's Student Behavior Assessment Committee, which had been assigned to handle Loughner's case, believed they were acting in the best interests of their community. Their being relatively open about what occurred—acknowledging that they had a history with Loughner, releasing a fairly detailed statement, and releasing a confidential 51-page law-enforcement document almost immediately after the shootings—tells me they believed they did the best they could at the time. This is in stark contrast to Virginia Tech, where crucial documents still have not been released. Cho's mental-health records, for example, didn't show up until 2009, when Robert C. Miller, a former director of Virginia Tech's campus counseling center, discovered them in his home.

I believe that Pima officials were completely justified in suspending Loughner, given the grave concerns expressed by faculty and the shocking video he'd made. I also know firsthand how difficult—indeed, how dangerous—it can be to try to intercede. Not only is the student himself resistant, but also the system is horribly flawed. With a chronic shortage of psychiatric beds, and insurance companies unwilling to cover the cost of treatment for the mentally ill, it's difficult to obtain long-term treatment for those in need. Moreover, unlike Virginia Tech, Pima doesn't have its own mental-health clinic; instead, it refers students to other mental-health providers.

That being said, there are still some things that probably could have been done differently. Why, for example, was a concerted effort not made to get Jared Loughner evaluated?

When the college decided to suspend the student, it appears to have appointed his parents as the de facto responsible party. Presumably, if Loughner had obtained a mental-health clearance and agreed to abide by Pima's code of conduct, he'd have had a right to return to the campus—something that would no doubt have alarmed those faculty who already felt threatened by him.

Putting that aside, there are more-fundamental problems in the Jared-and-his-parents-as-responsible-party approach, and it's an obvious one: Loughner's suspension could have made him more rather than less of a threat to the campus. Here was an unbalanced, quite possibly enraged student, who, as far as the college knew, hadn't had a mental-health evaluation and so was unlikely to be getting treatment. This former student with a grudge had easy access to guns and the capacity to return to campus and seek revenge on the college that had rejected him. Again, I want to emphasize that I applaud college officials for recognizing the need to remove Loughner from the classroom. But in the absence of a mental-health evaluation, it's hard for me to see how precisely the campus was safer after the suspension than it was before.

The fact that Loughner was already behaving in ways others found bizarre and, at times, threatening tells us that he may well have been unable to comprehend the extent of his own condition. The fact that he was an adult and unruly to the point of being menacing to some suggests that his parents may well have had little control over him by this time. In the chilling four-minute YouTube video in which he refers to his college as a "genocide school" and "one of the biggest scams in America," we see indications that he may already have been fantasizing about attacking the campus. He didn't select Pima as the site of his attack, but that may have been in spite of his suspension. Like many school shooters, including Seung-Hui Cho, Loughner seems to have selected his target with care, choosing the one most likely to challenge authority and shock the world.

Colleges have some limited discretion and flexibility in cases like these. But many people, even those in positions of authority, don't necessarily know what they can and cannot do. As I understand it, even if Loughner had not made an overt threat and was not in imminent danger of doing harm to himself or others, it would still have been possible under Arizona law to require him to get a mental-health evaluation. According to some reports, there appears to have been some confusion about whether or not a mental-health evaluation could be required by the college. Because a clinical psychologist and a member of law enforcement were serving on the college's Student Behavior Assessment Committee, it's even more puzzling why an evaluation wasn't done, especially when there was legitimate concern that Loughner could pose a danger to the campus community.

It's important to remember, however, that you have few good options when you deal with troubled students. When I met with Seung-Hui Cho in 2005, after a faculty member contacted me about his writing and behavior, the choice was between putting him in someone else's class (at the time, departments at Virginia Tech were required to offer students an "equivalent academic experience" if they were removed from class) or persuading him to seek counseling voluntarily. It was a terrible choice to have to make—one I'd argued against in the past. Since Cho's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, I've heard from faculty around the country who are still being asked to jeopardize their own safety by making similar choices, as well as from administrators who feel stuck between a rock and a hard place: If they act assertively to defuse a potential threat, they risk being tied up in litigation for years. Each case is different, each one nuanced. Many colleges don't have the time or the personnel needed to adequately assess levels of threat.

As far as we know, Loughner chose not to seek help from a mental-health professional, though we may learn during his trial that he sought it after all—or that his parents sought it for him. People assumed that Cho hadn't sought help, and it wasn't revealed until months after the shootings that he had gone to the campus counseling center on several occasions, even requesting one of the counselors I'd recommended to him. (He sought help from Virginia Tech's counseling service but was never diagnosed, only triaged, for reasons that have not yet been disclosed.)

It's possible that the Loughners did all the wrong things. But it's also possible that they tried as hard as they could to get help for their son. It's also possible that, like the parents of the 1998 school shooter Kip Kinkel, they were in denial. (Kinkel's parents, both schoolteachers, knew their son had a fascination for guns and explosives but, absurd as it sounds now, they hoped he'd become some kind of bomb-disposal expert. Seventeen hours before his attack on Thurston High School, in Oregon, Kinkel murdered his mother and father.)

When I was conducting research for my book No Right to Remain Silent, I was struck by how often these attacks occur when one constituency or cultural sphere fails to communicate essential information to another. We tend to forget that these spheres are interdependent: The individual/family sphere overlaps with the institutional sphere (schools, colleges, mental-health providers, law enforcement) and with the societal sphere (privacy and gun-rights laws, government, etc.). Deeply disturbed students become the flaming torches handed off from one sphere to another. Justifiably afraid of being burned, people often do what they can to avoid holding onto the torches for long. They're passed from one sphere to the other in an increasingly dangerous cycle. Each time, critical information may not be relayed.

For example, neither Cho himself nor his family revealed to Virginia Tech that he had chosen to stop taking medication when he reached adulthood, nor were they legally obligated to tell. We didn't know that he suffered from selective mutism, a condition in which extreme anxiety prevented him from speaking in certain social situations. (It should be noted that selective mutism does not predispose a person to violence.) Nor did we know that, in middle school, he had fantasized about the mass shootings at Columbine High School. But there were things we did know, and, as happened at Pima, a considerable number of faculty and students raised the alarm.

I don't wish to leave the impression that we have hundreds of Chos and Loughners stalking school corridors and the halls of academe. Some of the most tal­ented and sensitive students can appear "odd," and we need to guard against weeding out "difference" from the student population and adopting crude methodologies to identify those who pose a threat. The problem of severely disturbed students in our schools and colleges demands an engaged, holistic, enlightened response.

Although there have been positive changes when it comes to campus safety, there is still significant, sometimes crippling confusion about what can be done legally in situations like these. The issue is further complicated by the fact that an institution's legal responsibility may not be the same as its ethical one. In spite of there being some areas of concern related to actions taken by Pima officials, they should be applauded for trying to respond as purposefully as they did, involving the parents and releasing a fairly detailed statement to the public almost immediately, not to mention the campus-police documents. Open communication is crucial if we are to learn from what happened. The way leadership behaves after a crisis is almost as important as the way it behaves when it's in the middle of one.

Here are suggestions about how higher education can deal with this crisis. I certainly don't presume to have all the answers. But as someone who knows what it costs a community when things go horrifically wrong, I hope we'll confront this very complex issue in ways we haven't in the past.

The Department of Education must take a greater leadership role in responding to troubled students. Under what circumstances, for example, should mental-health evaluations be mandatory? What kinds of safe-harbor provisions should be in place so that faculty members who report their concerns are not unfairly subjected to litigation? What structural changes are needed so schools and colleges are more responsive during times of crisis? What kinds of information about a student may be shared and under what circumstances? And, in concert with entities like law enforcement, parent-teacher organizations, municipalities, and security experts, we should look at the most contentious question of all—one too hot even for President Obama to touch upon in his recent State of the Union address: How can we better prevent children, criminals, and the mentally ill from obtaining weapons?

We should consider requiring all colleges and universities with sizable student populations to have a mental-health-treatment facility on campus. Pima Community College has an enrollment of 68,000, more than twice the size of Virginia Tech's. Many colleges finance such facilities through student fees. Student access to mental health should be an essential component of a large campus.

At the national level, we should try to determine whether judicial-appeals processes at colleges and universities are equipped to deal with the severity of problems regarding troubled students. Judicial-affairs bodies were set up to deal with students involved in minor misdemeanors; some are simply not designed to be responsive to deeply disturbed individuals.

Faculty should be trained to teach students with differing needs and to recognize and respond to troubled students. In higher education, faculty members often receive little or no such training, the assumption being that expertise in a discipline automatically endows one with teaching skills. It doesn't. We need a nationwide initiative to deal with this problem.

We should find out the extent of the challenge posed by troubled or severely disturbed students in higher education, so that we can better respond to it. Numerous faculty members from around the country have told me that they are afraid to say how bad the situation has become in their classrooms. We can't respond effectively if we don't know the scope of the problem.

I am hopeful that the events in Tucson will oblige us to look again at the laws and policies in place to make sure we are not empowering deranged and enraged people even as we disempower educators, law enforcement, and others who are supposed to intervene. The risk to colleges and universities is enormous. Our dream for a healthy higher-education system will become a nightmare if we don't find better ways to respond to this challenge.

Lucinda Roy is a professor of English at Virginia Tech. Her latest book is No Right to Remain Silent: What We've Learned From the Tragedy at Virginia Tech (Three Rivers Press, 2010).

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