In wake of Ariz. shooting, local colleges work to flag problem students

January 24, 2011 9:32:00 AM

Garthia Elena Burnett -

 

Officials at local colleges agree with how a Tucson, Ariz., community college handled disturbed student Jared Loughner, saying they have similar rules in place to identify, counsel or expel troubled students. 

 

Loughner allegedly shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people Jan. 8 as she met with constituents outside a grocery store in Tucson.  

 

According to reports, Loughner had at least five run-ins with Pima Community College campus police and was placed on suspension for violating the student code of conduct. He was later suspended from the school and was told he would have to get a letter from a mental health official indicating "his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others." 

 

At Mississippi University for Women, a behavioral intervention team meets every two weeks, to go over a list of students reported by faculty, staff or peers. 

 

Mississippi State University''s team meets every week. 

 

The colleges rely on an anonymous online reporting system, established as a direct result of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. 

 

"All professors and all students and staff can report students," said Serena Parker, director of Community Living for MUW. 

 

Reasons for reporting students range from suicidal or depressive behavior, missing class or turning in writing assignments that seem "somewhat dark or disturbed," Parker explained. 

 

The intervention team sifts through the list, to identify cases where action may need to be taken. 

 

Some students may have missed a few classes and not bothered to tell anyone they''re sick. Others need help. 

 

"We take the steps to get them some type of counseling," said Kennedy Meaders, chief of police for MUW. Meaders serves on the college''s intervention team. 

 

Team members look for "any type of behavior that we feel the individual could be a harm to themselves or somebody on campus," Meaders explained. 

 

There have been instances where students have gone off their prescription medication. Others have gotten into a physical or verbal confrontation. 

 

"We make sure they understand their behavior (is unacceptable); there are repercussions," Meaders said. "We try to handle it more from an education aspect, because we want them to be in school and abide by the rules." 

 

"The level of risk, if any is assessed and the student is monitored by the appropriate university office," explained Dr. Robert K. Collins, executive director of University Health Services at Mississippi State University. 

 

The number of students reported varies from season to season, Parker said. 

 

When the school year starts, there are more students reported. Some are homesick, depressed or having other transitional issues. 

 

Most students can resume campus life as normal after counseling. 

 

"Some have been to Willowbrook (behavioral health facility) for a full evaluation," Parker said. 

 

If a student requires a full psychological evaluation, they can return to campus only if cleared by a psychiatrist. 

 

Since the system has been in place, there has been one student at MUW who refused to have the evaluation. 

 

"The others that have chose to do the evaluation have either been cleared or have gone to facilities for treatment," Parker said. 

 

But colleges can''t force their students to get help. 

 

The student who refused evaluation was banned from campus to protect the college community. 

 

The U.S. "places an extremely high value on individual rights," Collins said, noting, "without a overt threat, we cannot force an individual into therapy of any type. Even then it would require a judge''s commitment order. 

 

"They (PCC) used the only readily available tool they had, which was suspension until he brought in a report from a counselor that he was fit to be on campus." 

 

Ultimately, an individual student''s "civility" is in the hands of himself and his family, Collins said. 

 

In the case of Loughner, "If he and they could not control him, then the Community College had little it could do."