Safety task force monitoring troubled students

By By Rochelle McConkie

By Rochelle McConkie

When Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech University last spring and injured 17 others before taking his own life, a red flag went up for universities nationwide. At the urging of a campus security task force, U administrators and counselors are working together in an attempt to prevent students in need of mental or emotional help from taking tragic measures like those at Virginia Tech.

The key part of this endeavor is sharing information, said dean of students Annie Nebeker Christensen.

“We can’t have information be in a vacuum,” Christensen said.

The Office of Student Affairs and the University Counseling Center are trying to balance the access of information about students, who may be in need of counseling, with a student’s right to privacy.

“If there is a health or emergency issue, we can share information on a need-to-know basis…with campus professionals,” Christensen said. “You can’t profile and you can’t predict, but it’s best to track students and know their issues so you can help them.”

Depending on the situation at hand, such officials might include the Counseling Center, the Residence Halls Association, the Student Health Center, department chairs, faculty members and U Police.

To protect student privacy, Christensen said the information would not be available in list form, but would be shared with the people who could best help the student.

“I don’t think students need to be concerned with information being shared,” she said. “We guard it privately and use it discretely to support students.”

Guidelines from Student Affairs for managing difficult student behavior have been revised to include instructions on identifying threatening behavior. Examples of behavior to watch for include students making implied or direct threats to harm themselves or others, displaying weapons or firearms, stalking or harassing a faculty member, or physically attacking or confronting another student.

Christensen referred to a summary of key findings released by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to support the program, which reported that Cho had shown clear signs of mental instability, but the information was decentralized among individuals and departments.

“No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots,” the report said.

Records of Cho’s limited visits to the campus counseling center in 2005 and 2006 are missing, and the key findings also listed wrong interpretations of privacy laws, passivity and a lack of resources as other failures.

Christensen said information needs to be shared because students may exhibit signs that they may hurt themselves or others in different parts of the U including classes, residence halls or with departmental leaders.

If a student is having trouble, faculty and staff can refer the student to Student Affairs to work out the problem or mandate a visit to the Counseling Center. In more serious circumstances, an administrative suspension may result.

“We’re not reluctant or powerless to take action when a student is a direct threat to themselves or others,” Christensen said.

The Counseling Center does not share information about the student with Student Affairs or anyone else, but if the student receives a mandate, he or she must report back to Student Affairs to show that they went to the center.

Lauren Weitzman said the Counseling Center would consider erring in the direction of breaking confidence when there is clear evidence that the student may be planning to hurt themselves or others, or actually carrying out those actions.

“We’d rather do that then…keep things quiet and then something bad happen,” Weitzman said. “But it’s a very fine line.”

By sharing the information, Weitzman said U faculty and staff will be able to “connect the dots” about students to be able to help them.

“I do think it’s important to have structures and processes in place, but we need to think carefully about how to protect the rights of students,” she said.

The reporting program is also being extended to apply to U employees and Human Resources is creating an online guide and training program to prepare faculty and staff to deal with disruptive or threatening behavior in the workplace.

In most cases, workers will be referred to the Employee Assistance Program-a university benefits program for counseling and threat assessments.

Staff training will be done in partnership with Student Affairs in October and November.

“Employees have the right to privacy,” said Tom Loveridge, associate vice president for human resources. “If someone’s going through a divorce, you can’t intrude-the only place you have the right to is with work-related behaviors.”

Law professor Wayne McCormack, who heads the security task force, said the group is interested in watching the behavior of both students and employees.

“The principle thing is that there are trained professionals on campus to assess a person’s level of difficulty and get the appropriate treatment plan,” McCormack said. “We want to make sure everyone on campus is aware that there is a referral system.”

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