Expert on Troubled Students Says Their Actions Are Difficult to Predict

April 19, 2007

Gary Pavela, director of student judicial programs at the University Maryland at College Park, is an expert on how colleges can assist troubled students. In a forthcoming installment of his weekly newsletter on campus law and policy, the “Synfax Weekly Report,” Mr. Pavela discusses Monday’s shootings at Virginia Tech.

Among other observations, he says administrators’ ability to identify violent offenders is limited. “We’re pretty good at predicting how cows will behave,” he writes. “But people live in both an idealized world and the physical world around them. The complexity of that mental interaction remains beyond the scope of our best predictive models.”

Eric Hoover of The Chronicle talked with Mr. Pavela on Wednesday.

Q. In your newsletter, you cite research on so-called school shooters. What is the relevance for colleges and universities?

A. There’s some interesting research from a 2003 report the [National Academy of Sciences] did on the school-shooting phenomena. It was surprising how strong they were about the difficulties of profiling and predicting this behavior, and they cited work done by the U.S. Secret Service in trying to profile shooters. The Secret Service concluded that basically it couldn’t be done, and my commentary is that there is no accurate or useful profile of a school shooter.

Q. How are administrators and faculty members limited in what they can do to help students they’re concerned about?

A. Over years, this has been a recurring theme for faculty members. They might have a student who expresses dark thoughts, who’s depressed, or who never has eye contact. Sometimes when I’ve talked to faculty about this, I’ve said, “Look, let’s sit down and write a policy on removing students who write an essay with dark thoughts, or who wear sunglasses, or who never make eye contact.” And then I’ll say, “This policy would also apply to faculty as well as students.” There’s always a strong reaction to that that ends the discussion because we have a lot of faculty who are quirky people. The problem is that such a policy does not include any behavior manifestation that violates conduct rules. Without that, what do you have?

Q. You describe three ways of removing a troubled student from a campus. What are those?

A. The first is to do a voluntary withdrawal, where you ask the student to agree to taking some time off. This is very typical, and often parents are involved. The second avenue is a disciplinary case, where a person has engaged in disruptive, threatening behavior, and the university can expel them, with a hearing, which is basically an involuntary withdrawal. Legally there is another option, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which says you don’t have to wait for a disciplinary infraction to remove a student if you can show that person is a direct threat to himself or others.

Q. Some observers are asking why Virginia Tech officials did not pursue this option in the case of the alleged shooter, especially in light of reports that more than one person on the campus had concerns about the student. Do you see anything in that line of questioning?

A. It’s pretty tough because you’ve got to show that there’s substantial evidence and go through something like a disciplinary hearing, where you argue it out as to whether there’s a direct threat, and it’s a very demanding procedure.

Q. In your view of the events in Blacksburg, what else do you see?

A. Looking at everything I’ve read in press accounts so far, this student was a very strange loner who had dark thoughts. So what can you do? You can try and make contact with the student, and I applaud the professor at Virginia Tech who apparently tried to do that. But the bottom line is that I don’t think there is anything close enough to what the federal law would require to have removed the student.