I’ve been reading a lot more than writing the past few days. One of the themes that has popped up repeatedly in the discussion of the Arizona shootings is whether college officials should have been far more proactive in seeking help for Jared Lee Loughner. The New York Times today ran no less than three pieces on this topic:
- Shooting exposes limits on colleges facing troubled students
- Tucson shooting suspect worried college officials
- A brief window for help (an expert forum)
Couldn’t a caring teacher have intervened? It’s an appealing what-if, isn’t it?
Take for instance the piece that appeared yesterday in Salon, where Sarah Hepola interviews a psychiatrist, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, on the probability that Loughner has untreated paranoid schizophrenia:
Hepola: … What do you do when you see someone like this?
That’s the $64 million question. Among his classmates, if you took all the information known about him and looked at it together, you’d say this guy is potentially dangerous. But one classmate saw one thing, another classmate saw another. The college apparently had enough information to know this guy should be off the campus if he didn’t get mental help. They knew people were purposefully sitting by the door so they could run fast in case this guy did something. This guy clearly struck people as dangerous.
In Arizona the laws are fairly liberal compared to other states. In lots of states the only way you could act on this is if he had demonstrated dangerousness to self or others. But in Arizona, it would have been legal to involuntarily take him to the clinic and have him evaluated. People don’t do this much, because we’re very concerned about people’s civil rights. How do you weigh the fears of a college atmosphere against the civil rights of the individual — an individual who will go in and say, “Look, I might be a little strange, but there’s nothing really wrong with me”?
That’s a key question. Did the college behave properly? Should the school have mandated some sort of mental health treatment for him, rather than kicking him out?
Legally, they could have. Whether they should have or not depends on who had what information and what it looked like at the time. The retrospect-o-scope is a hundred percent.
Exactly. The people around Loughner had only piecemeal information, the impact of which is “obvious” only now that we know how the story ends.
But that’s not the only problem colleges face. For one thing, the actual contact hours a professor has with students are pretty limited. I typically see a student four hours per week (unless they’re taking more than one class with me, the poor dears!). Loughner gave off enough scary vibes that the instructor reported him and the college ejected him until he got treatment. That didn’t happen at Virginia Tech, where as far as I know just one instructor was alarmed enough by Seung-Hui Cho to advise him to seek counseling.
In my eight years of teaching, I’ve had a handful of students who were disruptive of classroom dynamics. There was one guy I considered my “mini-MRA,” who belligerently challenged every idea I presented, but also seemed to think he could kiss up to me by calling me repeatedly at home. Another apparently aspired to become Jonah Goldberg’s clone. But I’ve only had one who gave me an intensely uncomfortable vibe. He talked about how people thought ill of him because he liked to wear a trenchcoat, just like the Columbine shooters. I spotted him again on campus about five years after I’d taught him, and I wondered if he’d had to stop out for mental health reasons. As a new instructor back in 2002, I just thought he was creepy and eccentric. Today, in the post-Virginia Tech era, I’d probably consult with a campus counselor.
But actually reporting someone isn’t a simple matter. Will the student retaliate once he’s put under a microscope? One of my graduate advisers was stalked for many months by a former student, and she had only given him the low grade he’s earned. Loughner, too, acted out when he didn’t get the grade he wanted:
Even in his gym classes, there were problems. In May, the police were called by Mr. Loughner’s Pilates instructor, Patricia Curry, who said she felt intimidated after a confrontation over the B grade she wanted to give him. She said he had become “very hostile” upon learning about her intention. “She spoke with him outside the classroom and felt it might become physical,” the police report said.
Ms. Curry told the police she would not feel comfortable teaching Mr. Loughner without an officer in the area, and the officers stayed to keep watch over the Pilates class until the class ended.
Ms. Curry must have been alarmed indeed to call the police. In her place, I’d be even more frightened about retaliation after class.
The danger of retaliation would be great if the student weren’t treated or didn’t adhere to his treatment. My university does offer psychological services, but they’re woefully understaffed. Severely depressed students are routinely told to wait a month until they can see a therapist qualified to prescribe medications. This has occurred even when the student was suicidal, and said so. Multiple students have told me that they sought help and endured a long wait to get in, only to find they had no rapport with their assigned counselor. One rape survivor told me her sessions were downright counterproductive. Much of the counseling is provided by graduate students. The experienced therapists are quite good, I think, but they’re far too few in number.
Pima College, where Loughner took classes, provides no mental health services. It has over 68,000 students. Much of Loughner’s behavior was bizarre rather than threatening – for example, insisting that the number 6 was actually 18. I can understand why they Pima expelled him but didn’t petition to have him involuntarily committed.
One of the New York Times articles makes the argument that colleges can keep a closer eye on troubled students if they remain enrolled. That’s true as long as students are in dorms. (Incidentally, the same holds true for substance abuse problems.) But when a student lives off campus, we cannot expect an instructor – who in community colleges may teach four or more classes – to keep tabs on a student she sees only four or five contact hours per week. Pima is not a residential school. Did I mention it has 68,000+ students?
It’s striking that no one is asking why Loughner’s former restaurant employers didn’t call in the state. Or why the dog shelter where he volunteered didn’t so the same. Or the Army! All of these entities recognized that Loughner had serious issues. The Army rejected him for having a drug arrest. Quiznos fired him for bizarrely refusing to respond to a customer, and his manage recognized a “personality change.” At the shelter, he exposed puppies to parvovirus after being clearly told to keep them out of a contaminated area. But the New York Times is not asking why these entities didn’t intervene.
I think the difference is that Americans still expect colleges to operate in loco parentis. Even residential colleges haven’t really borne that responsibility – or wielded that power – since the 1960s. We no longer have housemothers and curfews. Young people 18 and older aren’t legally children. Universities can’t act like their parents. Especially when the student is still living at home with his parents.
I don’t want to indulge in blaming Loughner’s parents. His father is reportedly an unpleasant fellow. They still deserve pity and compassion. They have lost their only son forever.
But we surely cannot expect an underfunded, overgrown community college to stand in for his parents, either.