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Cho was a known psychological problem, but he'd broken no laws

BLACKSBURG, Va.—It seemed like everyone who knew Cho Seung-Hui at Virginia Tech witnessed his odd, disturbing behavior—professors, classmates, roommates and two women he stalked.

Now, the question is, with all the warning signs, should the university have taken more aggressive action to deal with the troubled student? Could something have been done to prevent Monday's massacre?

Virginia Tech police investigated complaints about Cho stalking women two years ago. Professors reported concerns about his classroom behavior and writings laced with violence. At one point, professors told reporters, Cho was removed from class when other students became afraid to attend class with him.

In December 2005, a Montgomery County, Va., court magistrate pronounced him "mentally ill" and dangerous and ordered him treated briefly at a nearby psychiatric hospital.

But he remained enrolled at Virginia Tech, where his mental state deteriorated. On the other hand, he apparently committed no crime and threatened no violence to others.

The painful second-guessing of Virginia Tech's actions could prompt changes in the way U.S. college campuses handle students with mental illnesses. It's already a widely debated issue complicated by questions of medical confidentiality, universities' legal liability and a rising population of college students with serious mental illnesses.

It's an acute problem, according to the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors conducted last year. Ninety-two percent said the number of students with severe psychological issues has increased in recent years. They said 40 percent of students seen at counseling centers have severe problems, including 8 percent whose impairments are so serious that they can't remain in school or can do so only with extensive treatment.

Ironically, college counselors attribute the rise to improvements in psychiatric drugs that allow more people with mental illnesses to make it to college in the first place.

It has created new problems for universities, where counseling centers are often not equipped to deal with serious illnesses and growing numbers of students who need treatment.

Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, said the Virginia Tech tragedy is likely to influence many colleges' policies about how they identify students who may dangerous.

"My gut on this is we're going to become more likely to want to remove students from the educational environment," Kruger said.

There are no easy answers.

After a 2002 lawsuit by the parents of an MIT student who committed suicide, more universities began to force suicidal students to withdraw from school, at least temporarily. Another lawsuit by a George Washington University student claimed that the school violated the federal disability law when it suspended him after he sought help for depression.

"Everyone's going to be looking at those threshold points, and (ask) `When do we take more drastic action?'" Kruger said. "It's the classic tension between individual freedom—the right of every individual to stay on campus—with the interests of the community."

In 2004, San Francisco's Academy of Art University was assailed for its decision to expel a student who wrote an explicit essay in a creative writing class. School officials said Wednesday that the incident was an example of a university putting security first.

"People were saying free speech, but it was a lot more complicated," said Sallie Huntting, the school's vice president for public relations. She said she was reluctant to criticize Virginia Tech, but suggested that schools should treat threatening speech with more alarm.

"It's a fine line, but if it's disturbing I think it's important for schools to look into this deeper," Huntting said. "Yes, there are laws that protect the individual and his privacy, but we all have to look at these safety issues and make a decision.

"If a student is disturbed, you can't say it's a moody student, it has to be taken seriously. We all have that responsibility."

Sheldon Steinbach, a former attorney for the American Council on Education, said universities are well versed in handling troubled students, and only with 20-20 hindsight could one have predicted such trauma.

"On any given campus, particularly one that is as academically selective as Tech is, there are individuals that exhibit peculiar tendencies, and increasingly more and more students come to school with a variety of emotional problems and on medication," Steinbach said. "No one is suggesting that these people ought to be barred from campus."

Sophisticated protocols are in place on most campuses to deal with seriously troubled students, Steinbach said. "It seems that Virginia Tech dotted every I and crossed every T."

Strange behavior is largely a judgment call, and forcing students into treatment isn't usually an option, said Maggie Olona, head of student counseling at Texas A&M University and president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

"They said there were signs there," Olona said of Cho. "There can be signs, but it's not a crime to be odd. There is nothing we can do if someone doesn't give us evidence to act."

Many universities have case management teams that meet to evaluate students whose behavior repeatedly raises red flags. But it's also easy for students to slip through the cracks.

Texas A&M, for example, employs 27 counselors for 45,000 to 46,000 students—"and we are well staffed and well funded," Olona said.

"You do the math."


(Stancill reports for the Raleigh News and Observer.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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