After Tucson Massacre
What a University can and cannot do
Before the nation met Jared L. Loughner, accused of killing 6 and wounding 14 on a Tucson, Ariz., street corner January 8, the 22-year-old was all too familiar to classmates and officials at Pima Community College. He’d spooked them with recurrently bizarre behavior that finally got him suspended. Now, Pima’s most notorious student has drawn scrutiny of his former school’s policies for handling disturbed people.
The team charged with identifying and trying to help troubled people at BU sat down with BU Today recently to explain what the University can (and occasionally cannot) do to address these sensitive cases, given federal privacy law and the complexities of discerning mental illness. The team’s main message: if you’re worried about someone’s mental health, tell someone—a professor, BU’s Behavioral Medicine staff, the Dean of Students Office, or the Boston University Police Department. Students and staff can go to the University website for advice on identifying people in distress and the BU resources available to them.
“The key point: tell someone,” said Margaret Ross, director of behavioral medicine at Student Health Services. “You’re not violating confidentiality. What you’re doing is bringing to attention a possible problem that can be investigated. It will be investigated respectfully and confidentially.” Erika Geetter, associate general counsel for the University, said privacy law doesn’t prohibit people from reporting concerns about a student or staffer to authorities within BU.
Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore suggested that when a BU community member is physically afraid of someone, that person’s communal “obligation is to go and speak with someone.”
Other members of the team, which meets whenever a case seems to warrant serious concern (typically two or three times a year), are Peter Fiedler (COM’77), vice president for administrative services, Thomas Robbins, chief of the BU Police Department, and Bonnie Teitleman, director of the Faculty/Staff Assistance Office. Such teams have sprouted at campuses nationally; Pima Community College’s met for the first time last September, the same month that Loughner was suspended, according to the New York Times.
Elmore said that while the team does not meet often, individual members touch base frequently, whenever one becomes aware of a student who might need help and possibly require the full team’s consideration.
The goal is to ensure that all the relevant University players—professionals in mental health, police, and student administration—are on the same page. “The Virginia Tech take-home lesson was that the right and the left hand never communicated. And we made a commitment that that wasn’t going to happen here,” said Ross, referring to the 2007 rampage by a deranged student at that university who murdered 32.
The BU team uses several tools. For about three years, the University has relied on an online threat assessment tool called MOSAIC, currently employed by 25 colleges nationwide, Robbins said. In that time, the University has had occasion twice to run individuals through a MOSAIC assessment, under which “we interview the individual. We interview associates, classmates, professors, a spectrum of people,” he said. The subject’s profile is fed into a computer, which estimates the likelihood of such a person becoming violent. The Virginia Tech killer scored high as a potential threat on MOSAIC, according to Robbins.
BU Police can take other steps, he added. “There have been times in the four years that I’ve been chief of police that we have sent a detective or an officer to speak with a student, just to put that person on notice that you’re on the police radar, and your actions, although not criminal at this time, spurred us to gather this information.” (One threat assessment expert told the Times that such meetings might goad a student into treatment.) In other, rare instances, said Robbins, detectives have sat in on a class to observe a student.
Sometimes, students display troubling behavior online rather than in class, and their peers contact Elmore “quite a bit about it,” he said—another vital resource in getting help to students. Sometimes, an online posting reflects merely “boorish behavior” that he handles on his own, he said. “But there’s a low threshold for us; the minute I even think that there could be a threat, I’m going to get some more eyes and ears—‘Hey, Erika, take a look at this,’ or ‘Tom, take a look at this.’ Then we together ask, ‘should we convene the team to look at this?’”
These are some of the tools for evaluating people on campus. BU officials’ sharing any concerns off campus (with, say, mental health or law enforcement professionals in the home town of a student who has been suspended) involves additional considerations. Typically, a school can’t communicate about a student’s education records without his or her consent. “But there’s this extremely important health and safety emergency exception,” said Geetter. “If you believe there is a threat to the student or others, you can inform people outside the institution without the student’s consent.”
The BUPD makes that decision, and Robbins said there have been instances, involving students or staff who have been dismissed from the University, in which the department has tipped off local law enforcement. Elmore emphasized that such divulgences aren’t made merely because of “a bad vibe,” but on observable behavior. Those behaviors are discussed with the student, who is told that he or she has “got to help us explain these feelings that people are getting,” he said.
No system for detecting and treating troubled students is perfect, of course. “We cannot ever force somebody to get mental health treatment,” Geetter said, but the University can make treatment a condition for a student’s continued enrollment at BU. “We try to get the individual to understand that it would be in their best interest to get some help,” she said. “Our initial attempt would be to have them take a medical leave of absence voluntarily.”
“If they will not do it voluntarily, we have to have a reason for feeling that they pose a danger to themselves or to the community,” said Geetter. “Then we would place them on leave of absence for medical reasons.” A leave is not permanent. “But if an event hasn’t happened that would occasion expulsion,” she said, “we would not simply, because of health issues, expel them.”
Faculty and staff cases are not brought up with the team, said Teitleman. Instead, she encourages people with concerns about coworkers to call her office or the BUPD. If an investigation warrants it, the employee can be referred to an external psychiatrist. But in her 14 years at BU, she said, just two employees have been deemed unfit for duty.
Rich Barlow can be reached at email@example.com Comments