Tucson shootings spotlight colleges’ treatment of students with mental illness

When the initial horror of what happened in the parking lot of a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store on Jan. 8 subsided, the first wave of journalistic reaction was, predicatably, whose fault is this?

We are now into the second wave: the trend story. Is the shooting rampage emblematic of larger failings in America’s mental-health or educational systems?

The New York Times took a longer look in its Jan. 13 edition at the quandary of how schools are to respond when students behave erratically but not overtly violently. As the Times reported, Pima Community College removed Jared Loughner from school after a string of worrisome outbursts, telling him he could re-enroll only if cleared by a psychologist.

Mental-health experts question whether this tactic merely relocates violent acts rather than preventing them, as may arguably have happened with Loughner, since expulsion imposes additional stress and separates troubled students from what may have been their only support system.

Last spring, the Student Press Law Center and collaborating journalism students from across the country used public-records laws to examine the prevalence of colleges’ (euphemistically titled) “mandatory withdrawal” policies. An unscientific sampling of colleges — several of whom gave misleadingly incomplete responses when asked — disclosed that at least 10 had written policies similar to Pima’s, under which administrators can expel a student who is believed to pose a threat of harm to others (or, more controversially, to himself). But almost no school could — or would — produce statistics showing how frequently the policies had actually been used.

Before the outrage over the Loughner case prompts rash policy responses, we must be mindful that giving college administrators open-ended discretion to label people “dangerous” and expel them has its own hazards.

Exhibit A is the behavior of former Valdosta State University President Ronald Zaccari, whose rush-job expulsion of a campus protester is the subject of a civil-rights suit on appeal to a federal court in Atlanta.

In the Zaccari case (the district court ruling under appeal is viewable here), the president, ignoring the advice of his own experts, summarily expelled student activist Hayden Barnes with no advance notice and no opportunity to defend himself. Barnes so fiercely opposed Zaccari’s pet parking-garage project that the president branded him violent, and expelled him via a “pack your bags and leave” note left in his dorm room.

By themselves, Barnes’ online rants about the parking garage were unremarkable, part of the routine criticism that college presidents are well-paid to absorb. Zaccari’s only defense is that Barnes was not just any student activist, but a student activist who’d been treated by a psychiatrist and visited a VSU counseling clinic.

That is a treacherous path if the public’s overriding concern is to encourage troubled people to seek help and get better. Even if viewed in the least self-serving light, Zaccari’s imperative was to make sure that any violent outburst happened on somebody else’s property.

Journalists who are asking the what-if questions in the calm daylight of Tucson’s aftermath would do well to ask their own colleges not just whether and how often they expel people for exhibiting signs of dangerous instability, but why they do it, and whether safer practices exist.