Identifying Violence-prone Students

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The shooting in Arizona has sparked discussion in academic circles about the boundary between student privacy and societal safety. We discuss the fine line higher education officials walk in dealing with troubled students.

The suspect in the shooting, Jared Loughner, had been expelled from his community college for allegedly making people uncomfortable in the weeks before.

Ronald Albucher, Director, Counseling and Psychological Services at Vaden Health Center on Stanford University campus:
When do we as mental health professionals or staff at colleges and universities, when do we intervene in the private lives of students? You have what seems to be a larger number of students with mental health issues on campus, and you have so many variables that contribute to potential behavior, whether it's disruptive or violent behavior. And we're notoriously bad at predicting that behavior. So where do we draw the line and when do we break privacy and confidentiality, what level is concerning enough for us? That's something we all struggle with on a day to day basis.

Christina Gonzales, Associate Dean of Students, UC Berkeley:
We were feeling that we had a lot more referrals than we had the previous year. We started breaking it down and we do believe we have students with families who may be losing jobs, may have been out of work for quite a while. The students are trying to figure out, how am I going to pay for college, what am I going to do, am I doing well? They're trying to work. We know a lot of students at Berkeley are trying to hold a job or two jobs and go to school full time. And we know a campus like Berkeley is stressful in itself on the academic side. SO trying to fit all these things in, be a successful student, and help their families is adding to the stress.
We need to know more about what we can share and what we can't. I do believe that even though we are not in the business of treating students, I quote Henry Chung at NYU, a psychiatrist who says, "We cannot let FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) trump our clinical judgement." In these particular cases, even though we are not treating the student, we are looking at the whole student and using what mechanisms we have, I do believe people are reticent to share because they are concerned that FERPA is in their way. I feel that we need to be communicating more about these things.  

Dr. Melissa Nau, Forensic Fellow, UCSF Department of Psychiatry:
There are definite warning signs, such as people withdrawing from others, not interacting with their peer group, a change in their functioning, whether it's their schoolwork dropping or their behavior changing, are they having sudden outbursts in class, do they appear marginalized from those around them, have they lost attention to their personal hygiene, are they having trouble with concentration or do they seem to not be sleeping, do they seem to have odd or eccentric ideas. I think it's important to distinguish that from being something of concern versus something that's a normal personality trait. But if somebody seems to be different than they used to be, a change in functioning, that's absolutely a warning sign.


Melissa Nau, forensic fellow in UCSF's Department of Psychiatry

Becky Perelli, director of student health services at West Valley College

Christina Gonzales, associate dean of students at UC Berkeley

Ronald Albucher, director of counseling and psychological services for the Vaden Health Center