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Book Excerpt
Al-Qaeda Goes to College
Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education

by James Castagnera


Chapter 2: Domestic Terrorists: The Mentally Ill

The parallel between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Technical University in April 2007 is striking and has been explicitly noted by numerous commentators. To wit:

Violence on college and university campuses has been a serious concern of administrators for some time, and particularly in light of recent events at Virginia Tech . . . , it is considered one of the leading issues facing institutions of higher education. While incidents of campus violence, specifically homicides, occur infrequently, the impact they have on campus communities when they do occur can be quite profound. During the past few decades, there have been a number of high-profile violent incidents in middle, secondary, and post-secondary schools. In many ways, however, the recent Virginia Tech tragedy could be considered the “9/11” of higher education. Much like the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the April 2007 events at Virginia Tech opened the eyes of many and motivated higher education like no other event has in recent memory. Since that dreadful day, campus administrators and others across the country have increasingly focused on safety issues generally and, more specifically, on the management of disruptive students who may also have serious mental health concerns.

Thus, it seems highly appropriate to treat this issue as part and parcel of the impact of terrorist activities and responses to them. To begin, then, let’s review a brief history of the most notorious of this form of campus terrorism and higher education’s responses, beginning with the former mother of all campus massacres.

The Texas Tower Massacre (1966)

On March 29, 1966, Charles Whitman—late of the U.S. Marines but by then a student at the University of Texas at Austin—was referred to Dr. M. D. Heatly on the university’s health center staff. Dr. Heatly opened his report on his one and only session the with soon-to-be mass murderer, “This massive, muscular youth seemed to be oozing with hostility.” Whitman admitted “that he had on two occasions assaulted his wife physically.” He told Heatly that in the marines he’d been court-martialed for fighting. Most remarkably, Heatly recorded: “Repeated inquiries attempting to analyze his exact experiences were not too successful with the exception of his vivid reference to ‘thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people.’” The good doctor’s solution? “No medication was given to this youth at this time and he was told to make an appointment for the same day next week, and should he feel that he needs to talk to this therapist he could call me at any time during the interval.” Whitman never came back, no one followed up, and on August 1, 1966, he took a rifle to the top of the landmark university tower and killed fourteen people. Counting the killing of his mother and wife earlier in the day, Whitman’s tally was sixteen dead and thirty-two wounded.

The massacre was a wake-up call. Within days of the August 1 shootings, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, founded decades earlier on the campus, ramped up efforts to improve availability of services for psychologically troubled members of the campus community. Student-counseling services were expanded, including services aimed specifically at patients in crisis situations.

Today, every campus has its counseling center and its policies on threats of violence and suicide. Yet costly, high-profile lawsuits involving students’ violence toward themselves and others abound. Universities still struggle with whether to treat or expel such students. And, as the Virginia Tech tragedy demonstrates, identification and prevention remain elusive goals.

Policing of many campuses also was vastly improved after Whitman’s massacre. According to the author Gary Lavergne, who wrote a book about the tower shootings, “The university [in 1966] had no real police department—only a few unarmed men who spent most of their time issuing parking permits.”

Today, the University of Texas System Police Web site states, “Our official creation as a police agency occurred in 1967 and was largely the result of a sniping incident on August 1, 1966, on the UT-Austin campus. . . . During the 1967 session of the Texas Legislature, members of the House and Senate in a near unanimous action answered a growing need on Texas college campuses for adequate police protection.” Article 2919(j) of the Texas Civil Code authorizes the Lone Star State’s public colleges and universities to commission their security personnel as peace officers. Countless campuses across the country followed suit, so that, for example, Philadelphia’s Temple University on the city’s dangerous northern side boasts one of Pennsylvania’s largest police forces. Meanwhile, most U.S. cities, similarly taking their lead from Austin, have created SWAT teams.

Nonetheless, as the Virginia Tech tragedy bitterly attests, campus police and city SWAT teams are no silver bullet pitted against a determined mass killer.

Meanwhile, the University of Texas’s Tower was once again reopened in late 1998, following $500,000 worth of renovations to prevent people from jumping. Tours today are by appointment only.

Profile of a Campus Killer

So, if better psychological services and campus police will not suffice to make our campuses secure, will the profiling of future offenders help close the loopholes?

When the police use profiling, it is condemned as racist.When the customs service does it, it’s similarly assailed as discriminatory and unconstitutional. Still, it’s being done. Travel & Leisure Magazine reported in January 2007, “The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently began rolling out a new security program, Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), at dozens of airports around the country.” Time Magazine explained, “TSA employees will be trained to identify suspicious individuals who raise red flags by exhibiting unusual or anxious behavior, which can be as simple as changes in mannerisms, excessive sweating on a cool day, or changes in the pitch of a person’s voice.” Although such techniques invariably arouse the American Civil Liberties Union, should colleges and universities consider adopting them?

Before you answer no, consider the case of Dawson College. On September 13, 2006, Kimveer Gill parked his car in downtown Montreal, removed a cache of weapons from the trunk, forced a passerby to carry his extra ammunition, and walked the short distance to the college’s campus. At the main building’s back entrance he opened fire on students standing on the steps. His hostage ran off with the extra ammunition as Gill entered the building and walked to the cafeteria, where he immediately shot two students. Ordering the others in the room to lie on the floor, he continued firing randomly until police arrived. Taking two more hostages, he attempted to escape until, shot in the arm, he took his own life. The toll: one student dead and nineteen more wounded.

Police later found Kimveer Gill’s profile posted on a Web site called In the accompanying photo he wore a black leather trench coat and sported a Beretta Cx4 Storm semiautomatic carbine, one of four guns he took to Dawson College. Visit today and you can purchase “cyber-gothic clothing” on a related link called “clothing@F— theMainstream,” and read featured interviews with “Velvet Acid Christ,” “Zombie Girl,” and “Grendel.” Gill’s own VampireFreaks screen name was “fatality666.” His last login was at 10:35 a.m. on the day of the shootings.

In the aftermath of the Dawson College shootings, the so-called goth subculture came under sharp attack in the media. Hardly a high school or a college on the North American continent is without its clique of goth enthusiasts in their leather, chains, piercings, tattoos, and bizarre hairstyles. Operators of goth shops and Web sites found themselves defending the lifestyle and adamantly disavowing violence. Some expressed shock at the fifty-five graphically violent pictures posted on Gill’s VampireFreaks profile.

Gill also turned out to be a big fan of the video game “Super Columbine Massacre RPG.” Go to the game’s Web site today and you’ll find this statement about the Virginia Tech massacre:

This week, the press is awash with stories about the shooting at Virginia Tech—the deadliest in recent history. Will we remember this tragedy in a week? In a month? In the years to follow? I certainly hope so. I hope we can learn from such sobering events as Virginia Tech, as Dawson College, Ehrfurt, Columbine and all the other horrific shootings modern society has endured. So often the potential for another shooting is just around the corner should we forget the lessons history has to offer us. This process of reevaluation, introspection, and a search for understanding is the value I believe my video game offers to those who play it.

The author, site owner Danny Ledonne, is said to have vomited when he learned that Gill was a fan. Presumably Gill wasn’t participating for “reevaluation, introspection, and a search for understanding.”

VampireFreaks and “Super Columbine Massacre” persist on the Web, despite their appeal to the Kimveer Gills out there. No one has definitively proved a clear cause-effect relationship (albeit the Alabama Supreme Court in 2006 reinstated a $600 million lawsuit against the makers of a video game called “Grand Theft Auto,” which the plaintiffs blame for the shooting deaths of two police officers and a dispatcher in 2003).

As goth enthusiasts and video gamers alike point out, tens of thousands of adherents never commit a violent crime. In the absence of a clear causal connection between violence-glorifying cults and games on one hand and campus shooters on the other, academic freedom argues against profiling goths and gamers as potential threats. And yet as horrific incidents multiply down the decades, administrators might be forgiven for considering closer scrutiny of students who fall into these categories. Indeed, while little publicized, standing committees, convened regularly and comprising representatives from all major segments of the university, have quietly come into existence since the Virginia Tech massacre at numerous schools to conduct ad hoc discussions and evaluations of perceived “problem” students. In essence, this amounts to informal, low-profile profiling.

Meanwhile, in a case of turnabout being fair player, bloggers are bandying about and debating the notion that Al Qaeda’s murderous methods actually inspired aspects of the infamous video game “Grand Theft Auto”:

Spiegel Online International speculates as to whether some of the attacks in Grand Theft Auto IV were inspired by al Qaeda tactics:

Islamist forums are abuzz with a new theory: The designers of the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, they say, were inspired by killing methods developed by al-Qaeda. But did the idea for the car bombs and suicide attacks in the game really come from Osama bin Laden?

For user “Abd al-Wahhab,” it is obvious. It isn’t just military men all over the world who are studying the murderous methods employed by the terror group al-Qaeda. Rather, designers, developers and graphic artists in the video game world, he argues, have realized that “al-Qaeda is a killing school.”

To support his premise, Abd al-Wahhab posts five YouTube videos. We’ve included one here, depicting a car bomb, at an airport, detonated by cell phone. Hmmmm . . . Catch the rest of the videos with the Spiegel Online story.

Spiegel games writer Christian Stöcker, however, doesn’t think much of the theory:

To say that al-Qaeda influenced “Grand Theft Auto IV” is just as absurd as claiming that al-Qaeda invented violence. . . . No way. You can carry out a suicide attack in almost every video game that contains bombs and grenades, simply by not running away.

The Virginia Tech Massacre and the Handling of Mentally Ill Student-Terrorists

The panel investigating the Virginia Tech massacre met for the first time on Thursday, May 10, 2007. Present was no less a political light than the Virginia governor Tim Kaine, who commented that “we owe[d] it to the victims” to learn all there was to know about the tragedy. He charged the eight-member commission, chaired by the retired state police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, to learn all it could about, among other things, the killer’s mental state and mental-health treatment.

In 1966, as noted previously, the University of Texas at Austin’s resident psychiatrist conducted a session with the tower sniper some four months before the troubled ex-marine climbed to the twenty-eighth-floor observation deck and shot forty-six passersby. The doctor’s notes eerily reported the twenty-five-year-old Whitman’s fantasy of shooting at people from the tower.

A decade later, in Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, the California Supreme Court enunciated a duty-to-warn rule, which has been adopted over the past thirty years by much of the American common law. The decision established an obligation among mental-health professionals to warn the known intended victim of a patient, doctor-patient privilege notwithstanding.

In Tarasoff the victim’s parents sought to recover damages against the defendants for the wrongful death of their daughter Tatiana Tarasoff, who was killed by Prosenjit Poddar, a University of California student. The complaint alleged that the Regents of the University of California were engaged in the business of the care, treatment, and supervision of patients suffering from mental disorders, and in providing the service of protecting the public from bodily harm, this by means of its campus police; that on August 20, 1969, Poddar was a voluntary outpatient undergoing psychotherapy at the hospital operated and maintained by the regents; that on that day defendant Lawrence Moore, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who was providing psychotherapy to Poddar, personally notified the defendants Everett D. Atkinson and Johnny C. Teel, officers of the campus police, that Poddar was capable of doing bodily harm to himself or someone else; that Moore told those officers that at a psychotherapy session on August 18 Poddar had informed Moore that he was going to kill “an unnamed girl, readily identifiable as Tatiana Tarasoff, when she returned home to Berkeley from Brazil”; that on August 20, Moore notified Atkinson and Teel that he would give the campus police a letter of diagnosis on Poddar so that the campus police could pick up Poddar and take him to Herrick Hospital in Berkeley, where “Moore would assign a [seventy-two]-hour Emergency Psychiatric Detention” on Poddar; that same day Moore, by letter, notified defendant William Beall, chief of the campus police, that Poddar had a “paranoid schizophrenic reaction, acute and severe” and was “at this point a danger to the welfare of other people and himself”; that in this letter Moore stated that “at times he appears to be quite rational, at other times he appears quite psychotic”; that defendant Stuart Gold, M.D., who initially examined Poddar at Cowell Memorial Hospital, and defendant James Yandell, M.D., assistant to the director of said department of psychiatry, concurred in the opinion that Poddar should be committed for observation in a mental hospital; that the campus police responded to the letter and took Poddar into custody; that defendants Gary L. Brownrigg, Joseph P. Halleran, and Atkinson, officers of the campus police, were satisfied that Poddar was quite rational and had changed his attitude altogether; that the campus police released Poddar when he stated he would try to stay away from Tatiana Tarasoff; that defendant D. Harvey Powelson, M.D., director of the department of psychiatry at Cowell Memorial Hospital, upon learning that his staff had made arrangements for Poddar to be placed in a seventy-two-hour treatment and evaluation facility, requested that Chief Beall of the campus police return Moore’s letter, ordered all copies destroyed, ordered Moore’s therapist’s notes on Poddar to be destroyed, and ordered that no action be taken to place Poddar in a seventy-two-hour treatment and evaluation facility; and that on October 27, as a direct and proximate result of the negligence of these various defendants, Poddar, who was deranged and at large, shot and stabbed Tatiana Tarasoff to death.

On these facts, California’s high court held the following:

When a psychotherapist determines, or pursuant to the standards of his profession should determine, that his patient presents a serious danger of violence to another he incurs an obligation to use reasonable care to protect the intended victim against such danger, that discharge of such duty may require the therapist to take one or more of various steps, depending on the nature of the case, that complaint could be amended to state cause of action against the therapists, to whom patient confided his intentions to kill plaintiffs’ daughter, on theory of failure to warn, that therapists were entitled to statutory immunity from liability for failure to bring about patient’s confinement but that plaintiffs pled no special relationship between the patient and the police defendants which would impose on them any duty to warn the daughter or other appropriate individuals and that the police were also entitled to statutory immunity for failure to confine the patient.

In 1995 the Virginia Supreme Court had occasion to consider the Tarasoff rule. In Nasser v. Parker, the commonwealth’s high court stated, “We disagree with the holding of Tarasoff that a doctor-patient relationship or a hospital-patient relationship alone is sufficient, as a matter of law, to establish a ‘special relation’” with the patient sufficient to fix liability upon the doctor who declines to warn. Under this Virginia precedent, the mental-health caregiver must “take charge” of the mentally ill individual in order to implicate duty-to-warn liability.

In Nasser, the deceased, Angela Nasser Lemon, had been involved in a relationship with George Edwards, but she rejected him and attempted to terminate their relationship. Edwards had a history of committing violent acts against women who rejected him. On December 5, 1990, Edwards held a gun to Lemon’s head and threatened to kill her. She obtained a warrant for his arrest, and fearing for her safety, left her Virginia Beach home in an effort to conceal her whereabouts from Edwards.

Shortly after the December 5 incident, Edwards consulted Charles E. Parker, a licensed psychiatrist who had been treating Edwards for mental problems over a period of seventeen years. Parker was aware of Edwards’s history of violence toward women who rejected him and was aware that Edwards recently had threatened Lemon. The doctor concluded that Edwards’s mental condition was deteriorating and that Edwards needed prolonged intensive therapy in a mental hospital.

On or about December 10, 1990, Edwards was admitted “on a voluntary basis” to Peninsula Psychiatric Hospital in Hampton. Parker visited Edwards in the hospital and observed that the patient had not been placed in a secure section.

Learning that Parker knew about Edwards’s actions and his condition and that the doctor had arranged for Edwards to be hospitalized for a prolonged period, Lemon returned to her home. The day after his admission, Edwards left the hospital. Neither Parker nor the hospital notified Lemon of Edwards’s departure.

Edwards visited Parker on December 13 or 14, 1990. The doctor prescribed medication for Edwards’s mental illness. On December 17, Edwards shot and killed Lemon in her home and then killed himself.

Lemon was survived by an infant son. Lemon’s father, Michael J. Nasser Sr., in his capacity as administrator of Lemon’s estate, brought the action seeking damages for Lemon’s death against three defendants: Parker and the two corporations that operated the hospital, the Hospital Corporation of America and Virginia Psychiatric Company.

On these facts, the Virginia Supreme Court concluded, “The boyfriend’s psychiatrist and hospital did not have special relationship with boyfriend to be under duty to control his conduct to prevent harm to another.” However, in thus affirming the dismissal of the lawsuit, the high tribunal held that “to establish the ‘special relation’ required for the duty to control conduct of a third person to prevent him from causing physical harm to another, the plaintiff must allege facts which, if proven, would show that the defendant had taken charge of third person.” 

In the Virginia Tech killer’s case, reports indicated that police first investigated the future mass murderer in November 2005, following up on another student’s harassment complaint. Seung-Hui Cho was directed to the university’s Office of Judicial Affairs. The complainant declined to press charges, saying that Cho’s unwelcome attentions were merely annoying, not truly harassing.

A month later another female student filed a complaint against Cho with the Virginia Tech Police. This time, after the campus police interviewed Cho, another student called to claim that Cho appeared to be suicidal. This call resulted in issuance of a detention order. The troubled young man was subsequently evaluated at Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Health, an independent mental-health facility. Following this counseling intervention, say police, they received no more student complaints about Cho.

Also in the fall of 2005, a Virginia Tech poetry professor had Cho removed from her class. Nikki Giovanni told media she found the young man’s poetry so intimidating and his presence so menacing that, when two students who shared her anxiety stopped attending class, she moved to remove Cho. Describing Cho as “mean,” she told CNN, “I knew when it happened that that’s probably who it was.”

These facts beg the following questions: In the fall of 2005 should Cho have been removed from more than just Giovanni’s poetry class? Should he have been kept in custody—institutionalized—when he was taken to the mental-health facility?

A May 8, 2007, editorial in the Roanoke Times, “No Teeth in Mental Health Laws in Virginia,” contended that Cho’s fall 2005 release from custody was inappropriate because he was diagnosed as “depressed and imminently dangerous.” In eerie emulation of the University of Texas psychiatrist’s suggestion that the tower sniper Whitman make an appointment for the following week, Cho was ordered to pursue outpatient treatment and then released. As with Whitman, Cho’s next appearance on the radar screen was with gun in hand.

One ultimate question was whether on these facts Virginia Tech assumed any legal liability vis-à-vis Cho’s victims and their families in terms of a wrongful-death action. Though the young man’s meanness and intimidating behavior in Professor Giovanni’s poetry class fit a profile of a potential menace to the campus community, profiling alone cannot form the basis of legal liability for the university (just as it probably cannot alone form the basis for removal of the student).

But even under the Virginia Supreme Court’s variant of the Tarasoff rule, Virginia Tech may well be found to have “taken charge” of Cho in 2005. Although he named no specific victims whom Judicial Affairs and campus police could have warned, the commonwealth’s courts might well have proved sympathetic to injured survivors or the parents of the deceased victims, who chose to sue. The commonwealth’s highest court ultimately might have been called upon to determine whether such anticipated wrongful-death actions are capable of prevailing under Virginia common law. However, Virginia Tech and the state wasted little time in settling the case. The settlement was for a modest $11 million, because under Virginia law $100,000 is the maximum that a single litigant can recover against the state in a case of simple negligence. And the most Virginia Tech officials could be accused of was simple negligence in this exceptionally difficult case.

In April 2008, Governor Kaine signed a number of bills aimed to reform the mental health, law enforcement, and court systems to better cope with the dangerously ill before they morph into terrorists. He also signed several pieces of legislation aimed directly at the state’s higher-education system:

House Bill 1005 requires the board of visitors or other governing board of any public institution of higher education to establish policies and procedures requiring the notification of a parent of a dependent student when the student receives mental health treatment at the institution’s student health or counseling center. The notification applies when there exists a substantial likelihood that the student will, in the near future, cause serious physical harm to him-or herself or others as evidenced by recent behavior or any other relevant information or suffer serious harm due to his or her lack of capacity to protect himself or to provide for his or basic human needs.

House Bill 1058 requires the board of visitors or other governing board of any public institution of higher education to establish policies and procedures requiring the release of a student’s educational record if the parent requesting the record claims the student as a dependent.

Senate Bill 538 mandates that by January 1, 2009, each public institution of higher education establish a comprehensive, prompt, and reliable first warning and emergency notification system for students, staff, and faculty.

Senate Bill 539 requires that the board of visitors or other governing body of every public institution of higher education establish a threat assessment team. The bill also requires the team to adopt a campus-wide committee charged with education and prevention of violence on campus.

Senate Bill 636 allows each public and private institution of higher education to request from its students complete student records, including any mental-health records held by the originating school. These records shall be kept confidential as required by state and federal law.

House Bill 1449 requires the board of visitors or other governing body of each public institution of higher education to develop and keep current a written crisis and emergency management plan.

The Changing Threat: From Political to Psychological

In the tumultuous 1960s, the most significant threats to campus security came from radical political groups, notably the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 2008, America marked the fortieth anniversary of what was perhaps, overall, the most violent year of a violent decade. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot and killed. The war in Vietnam escalated to new heights as Lyndon Johnson declined to run again for the White House. As his heir apparent, Hubert Humphrey, was anointed by the democratic power brokers, such as Mayor Richard J. Daley, in Chicago, and radicalized students clashed violently with police outside the convention hall.

The main movement building throughout the 1960s toward that Windy City confrontation, SDS was birthed by a young new leftist named Tom Hayden, who drafted the group’s Port Huron Statement in 1962. In 1968, Hayden participated in yet another dramatic confrontation with the police, this at Columbia University, where he was arrested with seven hundred others when the authorities reclaimed university buildings held for some five days by the student-radicals.

In effect, 1968 marked a turning point in the new left student movement, which took a sharp turn away from peaceful protests and rallies, such the “Get Clean for Gene” (shave and get a haircut for Senator Eugene McCarthy) gatherings of the first half of that year, to the violence of the second half of 1968. This shift in emphasis climaxed at Kent State University in Ohio two years later.

On May 1, 1970, students demonstrated against President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. On May 2 a mob burned the Army ROTC barracks on campus. The following day the Ohio riot act was read and tear gas fired before the students abandoned the campus commons. A day later, the Ohio National Guard fired into the reconstituted campus crowd, killing four and wounding nine more.

Immediately after the shootings, officials attempted to blame the protesters. On May 15 the Portage County prosecutor displayed a shotgun, a pistol, machetes, cap pistols, slingshots, and BB guns confiscated from dorm rooms. The American Civil Liberties Union labeled the search illegal and its fruits “meager.”

On June 6 the Ohio legislature enacted a campus riot law, which took effect in the fall. The legal tide seemed to turn on June 10, when the parent of a dead student filed suit in federal court, asking for $6 million in damages against the governor and the National Guard commanders for “intentionally and maliciously disregarding” students’ safety. On June 23 a U.S. Department of Justice report concluded that the shootings “were not necessary and not in order.” Wrongful-death suits followed from the other three decedents’ families.

Meanwhile, the pendulum took another swing, as a special grand jury indicted students and faculty for riot, assault, and incitement. After unsuccessfully fighting the charges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a number of the defendants were eventually fined and imprisoned.

All four of the wrongful-death actions were dismissed on the ground of Ohio’s sovereign immunity from suit. But in 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Scheuer v. Rhodes that the governor and other individual state actors, including Kent State University’s president, could be sued, as state immunity is “no shield for a state official confronted by the claim that he had deprived another of a federal right under color of law.” Meanwhile, eight guardsmen were indicted on civil rights charges by a federal grand jury; all were eventually acquitted.

In the 1975 case Krause v. Rhodes, a federal jury found the defendants not liable by a 9–3 vote, but the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ordered a new trial. As legal wrangling over campus construction that would obliterate the scene of the shootings dragged on, the parties settled for $675,000—the plaintiffs had sought $46 million—in 1979.

That settlement may well be cited as the end of the era of campus terrorism perpetrated by radicalized students and of governmental use of force in reaction. In the 1980s, the dominant student sentiments, reflecting those of the nation’s new president, favored professional education aimed at well-paid careers in the for-profit arena. Political apathy set in and has held firm for the most part down to the present day on most college campuses.

The Handling of Mentally Ill Student-Terrorists, Redux

Today, as the opening pages of this chapter illustrated, campus terrorists are much more likely to be mentally ill students who act alone and on agendas that are highly personal rather than politically inspired. Certainly Cho fit that mold. In the two years following the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, university officials have struggled with how to prevent such attacks in the future while complying with the mandates of the law.

The threat is one of both qualitative and qualitative magnitude, by which I mean that, on one hand, a single incident of the Virginia Tech variety is devastating and therefore must be deemed to justify the expenditure of significant institutional resources in its own right. On the other, the sheer numbers of mentally disturbed students demand attention in their own right, even if one is prepared to ignore or discount the incident because of its rarity. Some statistics will drive home this latter point:

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over one-fourth of Americans over the age of eighteen, almost 58 million people, suffer from some form of mental disorder. That number includes almost 15 million people suffering from major depressive disorder, 6 million from panic disorder, 2.2 million from obsessive compulsive disorder, 2.4 million from schizophrenia, and 15 million from social phobia. Almost 21 million Americans suffer from some sort of mood disorder, including “major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder, and bipolar disorder” and approximately 40 million suffer from anxiety disorders. All of these conditions are relevant to students, especially within the context of their transition into college or university life; however, statistics alone do not even scratch the surface of student mental health as a whole.

The 2006 National College Health Assessment—the largest known comprehensive data set on the health of college and university students—reported that at least once within a span of twelve months approximately 65 percent of college and university females and 50 percent of college and university males reported feeling “things were hopeless,” over 80 percent of females and almost 70 percent of males reported feeling “very sad,” and 45 percent of females and 35 percent of males reported feeling “so depressed it was difficult to function.” Even more alarming is the fact that approximately 10 percent of females and 9 percent of males “seriously consider[ed] attempting suicide” at least once within the same twelve-month span...

...At the end of the day, at least three things appear crystal clear:

1. Student-terrorists, principally of the mentally ill ilk, pose a more serious threat to campus safety and security than does Al Qaeda.

2. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy, virtually every college and university in America beefed up its policies and procedures, and its resources, for preventing and responding to the mentally ill people who come as staff and students to our campuses.

3. The Achilles’ heel of this industry-wide effort to guard against another massacre is the political, legal, and technical limitations inherent in profiling problem-students for purposes of prevention, and the limitations placed upon state-affiliated institutions (if not private colleges and universities) by the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of same, which together continue to make it difficult, if not impossible, to keep deadly firearms out of the hands of those who are determined to obtain them, even if the would-be purchaser is mentally ill and potentially dangerous. Adding to higher education’s woes in this regard is a national trend toward enactment of so-called “concealed weapons” statutes at the state level; such laws expressly establish the properly trained and licensed citizen to carry a firearm without fear of repercussions.

Despite these challenges, higher education, taken as a whole, is better prepared to meet third-party threats in the wake of the VTU tragedy.  Campus police are not the only personnel who are better trained to deal with threats posed by mentally ill employees and students.  Student-life and academic personnel also are sensitized to detect and report on erratic behavior that may be indicative of potentially violent acts.  Many universities have established inter-departmental committees, which are charged with formally sharing information about troubled students, so that the insularity, which contributed to VTU’s lack of preparedness, is broken down.  Employees who regularly deal with students --- not only student and residence life personnel and campus police, but also academic administrators and faculty members --- are becoming better-educated on their ability, within the broad limits of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), to share information among themselves about troubled students.  Such university personnel also are becoming better trained in dealing with a threatened or actual violent incident should one arise.

In short, the higher education industry has come of age, where campus safety and security are concerned with threats posed by the mentally ill. 

Copyright © 2009 James Castagnera All Rights Reserved

"Al Qaeda Goes to College" is Jim Castagnera's 17th book.  His "Employment and Labor Law" textbook, first published in 1988, will reappear in its 7th edition early next year, while his "Employment Law Answer Book," also first issued in '88, is now in its sixth edition.  His magazine articles and newspaper columns have appeared in dozens of newspapers around the U.S. and internationally.  He has contributed more than 20 film reviews, as well as longer articles, to The History Place over the past five years.
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