Colleges limited in what they can do about troubled students

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 10, 2011 

This undated photo released by the Pima County Sheriff's Office shows shooting suspect Jared Loughner. (AP Photo/Pima County Sheriff's Dept. via The Arizona Republic)


WASHINGTON — Described variously as a social outcast, a loner and paranoid, Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old who's accused of critically wounding a U.S. congresswoman and killing six others, meets the profile of a mentally unstable youth who slipped through the cracks and may have emerged with weapon in hand.

While cautioning that few of the details are known, psychiatrists said Monday that aggressive instincts among males peaked in the late teens through the mid-20s as testosterone kicked in. When coupled with substance abuse and a festering mental health problem, the result can be a violent outburst.

Indeed, experts said reports about Loughner indicated that while the violence he's accused of creating was out of the ordinary, the path of his mental breakdown was pretty typical.

"This is the age when it occurs," said Dr. Alan Lipman, the director of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the George Washington University Medical Center. "It is clearly and definitely known that psychotic breaks occur a vast majority of the time in one's late teens and emerge in one's early 20s."

Since the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, which left 33 dead, colleges and universities have sought to improve their efforts to identify and seek help for students who are displaying mental problems. But the efforts are uneven, and there are limits on how far teachers and administrators can go in helping disturbed students.

"Virginia Tech was a wakeup call," said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association. "But there is relatively little a school can do to insist on treatment."

Law enforcement officials are convinced that Loughner acted alone. While he clearly has mental issues, they say those problems were fed by paranoia punctuated with strange beliefs and a deep mistrust of government.

Dr. Jeff Victoroff, an associate professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California who's considered an expert on human aggression, said Loughner exhibited a potentially deadly mix of psychiatric problems: schizophrenia spectrum disorder coupled with control override delusions.

"You can be functioning, but not necessarily rational," Victoroff said.

Victoroff, after studying what's emerged publicly, said Loughner apparently was part of the 1 percent of the population that developed schizophrenia at a time when a young man's aggressiveness was at its height. Based on Loughner's delusional writings, Victoroff said, the young man apparently believed that the government was controlling him.

"This is the worst combination you can have," he said. "That's what he exhibits, and substance abuse makes it worse."

Loughner apparently never received any help, though his behavior came to the attention of officials. After high school, he enrolled in an algebra class at Pima Community College in Tucson. But the teacher and students in the class raised concerns about him.

"There was never a time when he was in class that he was not disruptive, and he scared me," student Lynda Sorenson wrote in one of several e-mails about Loughner. "He frightened the daylights out of me. I kept saying to people, 'I'm afraid he's going to come into the class with a gun.' "

Loughner later was suspended after he posted a YouTube video in which he said the college was "unconstitutional." The school barred him from returning until he met with a mental health professional and received a positive evaluation.

Education officials said they often were "caught between a rock and hard place."

"They can't take the person out of class until they've done something," said Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, the executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. "They look as if they should take responsibility. Look at Virginia Tech."

In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a Virginia Tech student who'd previously been diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder, killed 32 people on campus before he killed himself. Privacy laws prevented school officials from knowing about his medical history.

Dungy said colleges and universities now had teams in place to try to identify students with behavioral issues and get them help.

"But the reality is, most students who we are going to have problems with have not come into our vision at all," she said. "We just have no idea who they are."


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