31.3.08

RULES WRITTEN IN BLOOD. College admission season requires admissions personnel to temper principle with practicality.

In the first admissions season since the shooting rampages at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, college administrators say keeping students safe is of paramount importance.Yet despite questions about the psychological backgrounds of the two gunmen, officials say federal privacy laws prevent them from seeking more information about applicants with possible mental illnesses.

"There's no question that schools are being pressured to do something," said Doug Lederman, editor of Inside Higher Ed, an online daily journal that covers academia. "But what that should be remains an open question."

The growing national debate is accompanied by little consensus on how schools might spot red flags. While many advocates welcome the dialogue about depression, bipolar disorder and other diseases, others worry that increased scrutiny will lead to more secrecy, not less.

Consensus might not be reachable. Perhaps the laws err on the side of laxity toward individuals who are dangerous to themselves or to others. But a revised policy provides incentives for applicants to conceal their troubles, in hopes of passing as ordinary.

On the other hand, perhaps the academy will lose its fascination with transgressiveness.

Dr. Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and dean of students at New York's Yeshiva University, has heard that officials might rethink how they evaluate some essays.

"Ten years ago, an applicant writing at length about her struggles with an eating disorder . . . might be considered interesting or edgy," he said. "In the post-VT era, it might be more likely for an admissions committee to approach this applicant more hesitantly.

"When colleges are given access to confidential information, "it is often being weighed differently," said Schwartz, co-chairman of an American Psychiatric Association task force on the issue.

And thus, the revelation problem again. But "eating disorders?" Something there is about sorority pledge classes???

Moreover, we have to keep our therapies straight. An "eating disorder" is not a "learning disability" is not "certifiable."

After the shootings at Virginia Tech, a government report noted Cho's special-education plan did not follow him as he moved from high school to college.

Typically, students with a prior treatment history don't tip their hand, not when some highly selective schools admit less than 10 percent of applicants. Once accepted, though, the student often reveals the disorder and, with proper documentation, is eligible for accommodations ranging from textbooks on tape (for a reading disability) to a single room (for an anxiety disorder).

Some officials, insisting the system has too many holes, have been pushing for more candor.

These are different policies with different incentives. Because the College Board does not disclose who among the test-takers have made a case for extended time, the dominant strategy for applicants who don't mind shopping for a learning disability diagnosis is to get the extended time, then submit the application without the disclosure, then use the disclosure to obtain additional "accommodation" on tests and assignments. That's an abuse of higher education, but it ought be viewed differently from the abuse that follows from treating differences as "socially constructed" and susceptible to deconstruction or reconstruction or no construction. That's how people get killed.

But again, there's that disclosure problem.

If it were legal to "out" students, they would be less apt to get mental help in earlier grade levels, said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, an expert on psychiatry, law and ethics at Columbia University, which is holding its first conference on campus violence this week.

"Many students who have psychiatric histories thrive and excel in college, while others who experience problems have no such history," he noted.

A smarter strategy: Provide adequate mental health services and insurance coverage for students and implement outreach programs that encourage them to use the services, he said.

Dr. Peter A. DeMaria Jr., a psychiatrist at Temple University, is also anti-sleuthing. But he endorses vigilance once the student is enrolled.

Since the Virginia Tech shootings, Temple has created a "care team" that brings together staff members from different disciplines—security, counseling, academia—for weekly meetings, to ensure a freer flow of information. So the same student who has threatened his roommate and a professor may point to a larger problem.

Is it working? Said DeMaria, "We're very, very busy."

Even with support, though, people relapse. One North Shore mom whose child with bipolar disorder had a "meltdown" freshman year wonders if it would be more prudent to take a cautious approach.

"Perhaps kids on psych meds should not be permitted to 'go away' to college, but should stay closer to home, taking a few classes at a community college and gradual steps into independence. This is what we were advised, but we ignored it," said the mother, who adds that parental denial is a key factor.

"We all want to believe the kids are going to be OK," she said.

Hmmm. It takes a village, but the village has to have standards. Or perhaps other informal methods.

In a practice adopted at one college after another since the massacre at Virginia Tech, a University of Kentucky committee of deans, administrators, campus police and mental health officials has begun meeting regularly to discuss a watch list of troubled students and decide whether they need professional help or should be sent packing.

These “threat assessment groups” are aimed at heading off the kind of bloodshed seen at Virginia Tech a year ago and at Northern Illinois University last month.

“You've got to be way ahead of the game, so to speak, expect what may be coming. If you're able to identify behaviors early on and get these people assistance, it avoids disruptions in the classrooms and potential violence,” said Maj. Joe Monroe, interim police chief at Kentucky.

The Kentucky panel, called Students of Concern, held its first meeting last week and will convene at least twice a month to talk about students whose strange or disturbing behavior has come to their attention.

Such committees represent a change in thinking among U.S. college officials, who for a long time were reluctant to share information about students' mental health for fear of violating privacy laws.

“If a student is a danger to himself or others, all the privacy concerns go out the window,” said Patricia Terrell, vice president of student affairs, who created the panel.

Note: the problem cannot be worked without rethinking the privacy laws, and perhaps the concepts of access and accommodation. There is also the potential for abuse under the more formal procedures being implemented.

Students are encouraged during their freshman orientation to report suspicious behavior to the dean of students, and university employees all the way down to janitors and cafeteria workers are instructed to tell their supervisors if they see anything.

“If you look back at the Virginia Tech situation, the aftermath, there were several people who knew that student had problems, but because of privacy and different issues, they didn't talk to others about it,” said Lee Todd, [Kentucky] president.

High schools have been doing this sort of thing for years because of shootings, but only since Virginia Tech, when a disturbed student gunman killed 32 people and committed suicide, have colleges begun to follow suit, said Mike Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a leading campus safety firm.Virginia Tech has added a threat assessment team since the massacre there. Boston University, the University of Utah, the University of Illinois-Chicago and numerous others also have such groups, said Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Bryan Cloyd, a Virginia Tech accounting professor whose daughter Austin was killed in the rampage, welcomed the stepped-up efforts to monitor troubled students but stressed he doesn't want to turn every college campus into a “police state.”

“We can't afford to overreact,” Cloyd said, but “we also can't afford to underreact.”

Tradeoffs everywhere. Mr Cloyd's closing remark is significant, given the propensity of many a college campus already to approximate a "police state" where political nonconformity is concerned.

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