Should schools be compelled to give troubled students mental health support? It's a chilling and complex question that comes to light as as a patchwork portrait of Tucson shooter Jared Loughner emerges.
We know that Loughner's behavior so bothered his classmates and professors at Pima Community College that the school asked him to leave, ordering him to undergo a psychological evaluation. His strange conduct also led to several run-ins with Pima campus police, and prompted one student to vent in an e-mail to a friend that Loughner "scared the living crap" out of her.
So there were warning signs. But according to Columbia University assistant clinical psychiatry professor David Leibow, a school cannot legally force a student into treatment unless he or she poses a threat. Leibow said that, in theory, the campus police who interacted with Loughner could have transported him to an emergency room, where he could have undergone relevant examinations. But even in that case, he could have been discharged. He could have opted to cease any treatment, as people routinely do, or he could have refused treatment altogether.
The only people who would have truly been in the position to help Loughner, Leibow said, were his parents. (Loughner's parents were allegedly notified of their son's situation at the college, the Times reports.)
In any case, as his classmate Steven Cates told the Times, getting kicked out of Pima "was probably a major blow" to the 22-year-old Loughner. "He was really into school. He really loved the acquisition of knowledge. He was all about that," Cates said. "It would make sense that losing that outlet would be a negative thing for him psychologically."
Students like Loughner put colleges in an extremely difficult situation. Take the case of Community College of Baltimore County student Charles Whittington. Last October, Whittington, an Iraq veteran, wrote a paper for an English course the on narcotic quality of war. "Killing is a drug to me and has been ever since the first time I have killed someone," he wrote. "At first, it was weird and felt wrong, but by the time of the third and fourth killing it feels so natural. It feels like I could do this for the rest of my life and it makes me happy."
After the essay was published in the school's newspaper, Whittington was barred from the school pending a psychological evaluation. Whittington obtained one, but the school said he did not submit proper documentation. He ultimately decided not to return to the college. A source close to Whittington told the Sun that he "seemed unusually depressed," though he was being treated with counseling and medication.
A Community College of Baltimore County spokesperson said that the school was exercising increased caution in a post-Virginia Tech world. The 2007 massacre, which left 32 dead, tipped the scales between caution and compassion on campus toward the former.
"It's a tough predicament and there is no one answer that can solve this problem," Leibow said. "The real fortunate thing here, I think, is that every school now and every student health service since Virginia Tech and Columbine is aware of the need to assess dangerousness."
Correction appended: An earlier draft of this article quoted David Leibow as saying it was unfortunate that schools had to assess dangerousness as a result of Virginia Tech and Columbine. He actually said that was a fortunate outcome.