By Mandy Dominelli, Krystal Nancoo-Russell and Yagana Shah
COLLEGE PARK – Universities find themselves walking a difficult line as they strive to balance the rights of students with disabilities and campus safety, say experts in the wake of the shooting deaths of two students Tuesday.
“We don’t assume that because a student might have a mental health condition, they are going to be disruptive to others or dangerous to others. We respond to behavior,” said Jana Varwig, associate vice president for student affairs at Towson University.
Universities face the challenge of somewhat limited involvement in student mental health issues. Unlike transcripts or immunization records, colleges and universities are prohibited from requesting mental health information from students under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects individuals from disability-based discrimination.
The University of Maryland, College Park student who fatally shot his roommate and injured another before killing himself at their off-campus home early Tuesday was reportedly prescribed medication for a mental illness, although university officials say he never sought mental health treatment on campus.
The shooter, Dayvon Green, 23, had been acting unusually in the weeks before the shooting, according to reports from The Washington Post. This has raised questions as to whether university knowledge of students’ mental illnesses could be used to prevent incidents like this.
Video by Jenny Kay Paulson/CNS-TV
“People are only allowed to disclose, at the time of admission, things that are relevant. Mental and physical health are not,” said Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park. “There are many people with mental health challenges and we shouldn’t associate acts of violence with mental health problems.”
Universities across Maryland routinely circulate publications on their campuses to help faculty and staff identify and respond to students who appear to be in distress. Counseling centers on university campuses aim to assess mental health conditions and provide therapy.
The centers deal with a multitude of issues, ranging from simpler transition and adjustment issues to more serious mental health issues, Varwig said.
The goal, she said, is ultimately to try to connect the dots to see what is going on with students in distress. And if a student is believed to be a threat to the safety of themselves or others, both Towson and the University of Maryland are equipped with threat assessment teams.
“If a student is demonstrating behavior that is potentially of harm to others, then the university can take action to do a direct threat analysis,” Varwig said. The threat analysis would involve psychiatric evaluation and medical documentation by a consulting psychiatrist to determine if the student is dangerous to others.
The team at the University of Maryland, made up of representatives from the Office of Student Conduct, the Counseling Center and university police would similarly look at identified behaviors that would put the student or others at risk.
If a student is deemed a threat, the team has the authority to temporarily suspend the student while he or she receives medical treatment. “These are all judgment calls. It’s all individualized,” Varwig said.
Richard Bonnie, chairman of the Virginia College Mental Health Study, said, if operated properly, threat assessment teams are a best practice for colleges and universities.
Virginia learned that lesson in the aftermath of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which a student, Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before killing himself. The health study was completed in response.
“We also need to do research on the schools that have threat assessment teams, what the practices are and what some of the outcomes have been. You can put things in operation but it is important to look at exactly how they are operating,” Bonnie said.
Nationally, there is no real standard among universities for providing mental health services, said Victor Schwartz, medical director of The Jed Foundation, an organization that promotes emotional health and suicide prevention among college students. “The terrain varies dramatically from school to school,” he said.
Schwartz recommends universities make sure that they offer not only an array of services, but also have a large enough staff to support the student body quickly and efficiently. “You need to be able to move students on so that you’re always opening up places to get into the system, and that’s important and sometimes challenging thing to do.” he said.
Sharon Stephan, director of research and analysis of the University of Maryland Center for School Mental Health thinks colleges and universities are doing the best they can with what they have.
“The reality is that our mental health system in general is undersourced so we need more resources to be able to adequately serve students and not just those with the greatest mental health needs but really resources to be able to provide mental health awareness,” Stephan said.
“I think I’d also emphasize though that we can’t guarantee that having more mental health resources would prevent an incident similar to what happened in College Park.”