Communication and Counseling Are Keys to a Safer Campus

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

April 29, 2013

It was a typical week for me: I received e-mail notes from faculty at other institutions, describing the challenges as they try to respond to troubled students. Even when faculty receive support from their department chairs and deans, dealing with those students can take dozens of hours, sap their energy, and, in some cases, terrify them.

It was a depressingly familiar week in another way: an attack at a campus of Lone Star Community College, in Texas. This time the weapon of choice was a knife. The suspect, a student at the college, injured 14, two critically, before being apprehended.

Six days after that came the Boston Marathon bombings. On the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth campus, FBI investigators later found a "large pyrotechnic" in the dorm room of the 19-year-old suspect in the bombings, once again demonstrating the vulnerability of college campuses and the ease with which students can bring weapons onto them.

Now, six years after the attack at Virginia Tech, and four months after the heartbreaking carnage at Sandy Hook, the country is at last waking up to the idea that we have a recurring problem. Inspired by the courageous families of victims, state legislatures in Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have passed much tougher gun-control laws, although even modest gun-control legislation has failed to pass at the federal level.

On another front, funds have been set aside for mental health. Last month Congress approved $2.75-million for a new National Center for Campus Public Safety, which will provide research, training, and best practices to colleges.

Those are important steps in the right direction. But six years after the worst campus attack in American history, are classrooms really less vulnerable?

I imagine what would happen were Seung-Hui Cho to enter my office at Virginia Tech today exhibiting the same behavior and affect, and writing the same angry poems as he did in 2005. He would be wearing his sunglasses indoors, his baseball cap pulled low over his head. He would speak in a whisper.

It would still be difficult to obtain long-term help for him. This isn't because support personnel and administrators at Virginia Tech would be unresponsive. In fact, even in 2005, when the English department reported Cho to the counseling center and various campus authorities, almost all those we spoke with did their best to be helpful.

These days we do have more resources than before: a threat-assessment team, whose members include law enforcement and mental-health professionals; a better-staffed campus counseling center—although, like most such centers, it is still expected to do far too much with far too little. (There is roughly one counselor for every 1,750 students at Virginia Tech. When the English department reported Cho, the ratio was 1 to 2,700. Experts recommend that the ratio of counselors to students be 1 to 1,500.)

What hasn't changed, however, is a mental-health system that rarely allows those with chronic and severe mental illness to receive the care they need, and a society that allows disturbed young people to have easier access to weapons than they do to long-term mental-health treatment. Given this reality, our options would still be limited.

It's possible that Cho would be suspended and prohibited from returning to campus without mental-health clearance indicating that he didn't present a danger to himself or others. That was required of the Tucson shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, by Pima Community College after he was suspended, in September 2010, a few months before he shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others.

If Cho were here today and chose not to seek treatment, how vulnerable would we be? Would the aggrieved student pose an even greater threat to our community? Were Cho eventually to be admitted back on the campus, who would be responsible for monitoring his behavior?

America has moved so far toward the individual as responsible agent that there is almost no provision for those who, at least for some period of their lives, are unable to act responsibly without assistance. It's no wonder colleges are reluctant to take on this guardianship role; even parents of very troubled young people often find it an impossible task.

Those who suffer from mental illness and those who advocate for them have a legitimate concern that we could further stigmatize the condition if we summarily expel those we suspect are potentially dangerous or who simply seem "different," out of fear that they could commit acts of violence. Threat-assessment teams have become the guardians of campus safety.

Having tried to respond to troubled students, I strongly believe we need teams like those to assist us with students in crisis. Yet everyone acknowledges how difficult it can be to determine whether a student is a potential threat. If we overreact, we are likely to cast aside many worthy students who are more than capable of succeeding in academe.

Not surprisingly, therefore, some of the most compassionate educators are reluctant to confront this issue. And that's a shame. Locks on classroom doors, elaborate notification systems, and drills are crisis-response mechanisms rather than crisis-prevention strategies. Educators, support personnel, and parents have the best opportunity to intervene before a crisis occurs.

On every campus, department chairs, deans, provosts, vice presidents, and presidents should be meeting regularly with faculty, staff, and students in an effort to help us better respond to student bodies with needs more diverse and more pressing than in years past. The dialogue should be honest, student-centered, and inclusive. (For other recommendations, please see my essay "After Tucson: A Personal Assessment of Higher Education's Response to Threats," in The Chronicle.)

Greater safety cannot become a reality without open communication and honest dialogue. We have to break down some of the barriers that separate us: Academic programs must collaborate more frequently with the student-affairs office; administrators must work more closely with teaching faculty.

The excessive marketing of the educational experience has resulted in a system in which only certain kinds of official truths are countenanced. Parents usually don't discover, for example, that, given the shockingly high rate of depression among young people, the resources being devoted to campus counseling services are inadequate, or that they don't exist at all at some cash-strapped community colleges. Parents don't learn that class size on some campuses has increased to such an extent that students can remain invisible and anonymous.

President Obama's administration has put a high priority on education, but we are missing this opportunity to put into effect wide-reaching reforms. Not every student who is lost will be found. But more students are likely to be identified as being at risk if faculty are trained to respond more effectively, and support services are equipped to assist them.

We will never be able to prevent all school shootings. But sometimes­—maybe days, maybe weeks, maybe years—before a student surrenders to despair or rage, he is in your office, asking you to read his work, speaking about the dreams he has that are filled not with blood but with hope, making you realize how desperately he needs help, and how morally obliged you are to try to get it for him.

Supported, empowered faculty can play a crucial role in prevention. Making sure we can do so more effectively is one of education's greatest challenges. I hope, for the sake of all our students, that we decide we're up to it.

Lucinda Roy is a professor of English at Virginia Tech. Her latest book is No Right to Remain Silent: What We've Learned From the Tragedy at Virginia Tech (Harmony Books, 2009).