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Va. Tech shootings' effect still felt on campus mental health treatment methods

Monday, April 14, 2008

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.

Since Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting spree last April 16, killing 32 people before shooting himself, people who work in the campus mental health field put the changes they have seen 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 mental health services that was already underway before the Virginia Tech shootings.

David Wallace, director of counseling at the University of Central Florida, said teachers are paying closer attention to violent material in writing assignments -- warning bells that had worried Cho's professors.

Mississippi State and the University of Kentucky are among the schools creating teams involving people such as resident advisers, teachers, administrators and campus police to try to identify troubled students.

The downside is officials may be hypersensitive to any eccentricity.

Privacy

The big change since the Virginia Tech shootings, legal experts say, is colleges have shed some of their fear of violating the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Many faculty hadn't realized that the law applies only to educational records, not observations of classroom behavior, or that it contains numerous exceptions for potential safety threats.

In any case, colleges have concluded it's better to risk a mistake on FERPA than miss the danger signs in a student like Cho.

Stigma

As news of the Virginia Tech shootings broke, Erica Hamilton was one of many people who worried the violence could prompt a backlash against the mentally ill, discouraging treatment and leading to misguided new laws.

"I was really nervous," said Hamilton, a student at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro who works with Active Minds, a mental health advocacy group with chapters at 127 colleges. "It shined a negative light on people who have mental illness."

Bill Edmonds, a spokesman for Florida's board of governors, said the board 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," said Brett Sokolow, who advises colleges on risk management. "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."


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