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Education

Finding troubled students

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:49 PM
TAMPA -

When Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas in 1966 and fired at students below, the incident was so bizarre that physicians autopsied his body for a brain tumor.

What else, they asked, could cause such aberrant behavior?

Today, the idea of a young man in college turning a gun on others, then on himself, happens frequently enough that the public demands a scapegoat. Often, the fingers point toward the professors and counselors on campus who should have known and done … something.

In the decades since the Whitman massacre, and especially since the deadly Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, colleges and universities have worked to identify students with the potential for violence, with an eye toward getting to them before it all goes bad.

Called "threat assessment teams," they bring together professionals from across campus, including police, to identify students with emotional problems of any kind.

Academicians call it "silo breaking" — getting people from different disciplines to solve problems together.

At the University of South Florida, the Students of Concern Assistance Team (SOCAT) primarily takes referrals from professors, says JJ Larson, program director. It began in 2009, and can include representatives from deans' offices, university counseling and health centers, and other student organizations.

SOCAT doesn't just look for the student with a murderous glint in his eye.

"We help faculty, staff, the community and our students in dealing with a distressed student whose behavior is concerning other people," Larson says. "When we get a referral, we gather the collateral facts."

Referrals also could come from a parent, who believes a son acted depressed on break; a student who saw a roommate purging; a professor who observed a serious slip in grades or out-of-place, violent imagery in a school paper.

The team assesses the "level of concern." The majority of cases so far at USF have been considered low or moderate concern. Only 3 percent of the 314 students served in the 2011-12 school year were considered an extreme threat, leading, perhaps, to referral to a psychiatric hospital.

A small number of students act surprised when the team reaches out, usually by email; but the majority seem relieved that someone has noticed, Larson says.

"We tell them this is not about punishment," she says. "We say we want to assist you, to identify those stressors and create a pathway to success."

That can mean getting troubled students into on-campus services, be it counseling, tutoring or even an extension on an exam. The goal is stabilizing students so they can continue their education. If withdrawing is the best option, the team will assist with that procedure.

"We've helped them get to a food bank, or even to get their pet some food if they're struggling economically," she says.

That's all it might take to right the boat, she says.

Larson is aware that the public wants to blame someone when horrendous events occur.

News continues to leak about James Holmes, the man accused of shooting into a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., July 20. He recently dropped out of Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado, Denver.

Court documents released after the shooting reveal Holmes had been under the care of Lynne Fenton, director of student mental health services at the university. Still uncertain is whether she had communicated her concerns to the school's behavior assessment team before the shooting.

The university issued a statement citing student confidentiality in refusing to release records of Holmes' care.

Peter Lake, a specialist in higher education law and policy at Stetson University College of Law, acknowledges the conflicting concerns when weighing students' rights against the right of the public to be protected.

"The law (concerning reporting) is not terribly helpful," he says.

Some critics have said colleges have no business getting involved in the personal lives of students.

"It gives people an uneasy, queasy sense, kind of Big Brotherly," he says.

Lake is the legal consultant on a Jed Foundation committee working to find what works best for behavior teams. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to promote emotional health and prevent suicide in college students.

Lake stresses that not every homicidal student looks as mentally disturbed as Holmes, who appeared in court with bright orange hair and a distant, dopey gaze.

"I don't know anyone who has the magic beans," he says. "You don't know what is going to happen. On the other hand, a lot of times, if the teams do their jobs well, they are extremely helpful."

Although there is no national law requiring colleges to use assessment teams, insurance companies recommend them to the schools they cover. Lake considers that a good idea. But colleges' liability can only go far, despite public outrage when a shooting occurs.

"Our teams work best when we stick to what we do best — care and concern for our students," he says. "We're not lawmen. Our goal is not to protect people in public theaters."

Lake believes universities should have access to records from K-12 schools, saying that violent behavior rarely arises out of the blue once a student gets to college.

"We have this idea of a blank slate," he says. "But if you have a crystal ball and you can see everything that the high school knew, the high school girlfriend knew, the family knew — you could do a better job of prevention."

Larson is confident that SOCAT helps USF's students at a time of life when changes often bring emotional stress. But it's not a guarantee.

"We can't predict violence," she says. "There is no real tool or rubric. But we will reach out to them. I would rather err on the side of overreaching than not do enough."


dkoehn@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8264

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