BU Today

Campus Life + Health & Wellness + In the World

After Tucson Massacre

What a University can and cannot do


Jared L. Loughner, whose recurring bizarre behavior resulted in his suspension from Pima Community College last September, killed 6 people and wounded 14 in Tucson January 8.

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 barlowr@bu.edu.


5 Comments on After Tucson Massacre

  • Anonymous on 01.21.2011 at 6:14 am

    Thank you for this timely article. I have been wondering (and worrying) about how we deal with troubled students.

  • Anonymous on 01.21.2011 at 9:12 am

    Security is not the answer

    While I commend the University for taking an active role in ensuring our safety in light of Tucson shooting, the Arizona incident raises larger issues. This young man was edged on constant xenophobic rhetoric and the hyper-nationalist ideologies that was seen in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. This type of type of belief has remained latent until the Obama presidential election. This same rhetoric took the lives Dr. King, the Kennedys, and Harvey Milk. If we are keen on addressing issue then the university needs to encourage the student leaders and the student body to critically examine the meaning of a multicultural society and be engaged in it.
    ‘Beefing up’ security seems like a bandage, for here and for the rest of the country.

  • Anonymous on 01.21.2011 at 1:31 pm

    RE: Security is not the answer

    I believe you have your facts wrong. Although initial reports claimed him to be most likely a tea party member later reports indicated that he was on a distorted position of the far left. I don’t think politics or lack of multiculturalism at BU are the problem here.
    More likely he was simply a little wrong in the head.

  • Anonymous on 01.21.2011 at 8:41 pm

    There IS more that can be done

    The article omits to mention that persons who evidence commmunications or behavior that suggest they may be a danger to themselves or to others may be brought to a hospital for psychiatric examination without their consent. If the examining psychiatrist determines the person needs to be hospitalized to prevent injury to herself or to anyone else, the person can be hospitalized involuntarily for up to 5 days. Only a judge’s order after a full hearing (often conducted bedside) can continue an involuntary hospitalization.

    An Involuntary Emergency Hospitalization is truly an emergency resort when there is a basis for believing a person will seriously harm or kill someone, including himself, if not prevented from doing so. In the case of Jared Loughner, an IEH would have compelled his psychiatric examination, and — based on what we have been led to believe — would likely have resulted in long-term hospitalization.

    Those staff and offices at Boston University that must make the hard decisions in cases where any member of our community exhibits behavior to trigger concens such as were voiced about Jared Loughner, are well aware of the laws allowing for Involuntary Emergency Hospitalization and have, indeed, saved lives in the past by invoking it. The Boston University community deserves to be aware that there is far more that can be done– and quickly– to prevent a tragic loss of life than the article leads us to believe.

  • Ellie L. on 01.22.2011 at 12:55 pm

    I went through training with the Behavioral Medicine staff in preparation to be a recruitment counselor for sorority recruitment. I think it was very helpful and important. I left wondering why it’s not part of new student orientation. Think of what could be done if every person on this campus knew what to do if they were concerned about a friend or roommate.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)