Even as the nation continues to grieve over the lives lost in the mindless violence unleashed by one mentally deranged individual, another debate rages on over the role of educational institutions in adding to the vitriolic fury and frustration of individuals like Jared Lee Loughner, who shot at Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 17 others, killing six and injuring the rest.
People attend a memorial service for Gabe Zimmerman in Tucson, one of the six people killed in the January 8 shooting.
The question under heated discussion in several circles is whether the Pima Community College, where Loughner was a student and which had suspended him till he sought clearance from a mental health professional, could have done something more to bring him the medical attention that he deserved and thus prevent a tragedy of this dimension. More importantly, are there lessons from the Arizona shooting that colleges across the United States can use to have policies and actions in place that might arrest recurrence of such events in the future?
The Pima Community College had suspended Loughner after several bizarre outbursts and online rants, asking him to return only after he had got himself certified to be mentally fit by a psychologist. Loughner had never returned. Now, with the advantage of hindsight, many feel that perhaps the college could have imposed an involuntary mental health evaluation, especially since laws in Arizona make it easier to do so in case any concerned party applies for a court-ordered evaluation. This could have led to mandated isolation and treatment of an individual who was very evidently unhinged and increasingly antisocial. As one of his ex-classmates in Pima has written in her website, "He was the kind of guy I pictured bringing a gun to class and shooting everyone." Many even question the incendiary effect of dismissive action like suspension or expulsion on the psyche of such individuals as Loughner.
Defenders of the college system and community college leaders, however, view the malaise as being much deeper and feel it would be unreasonable to make the institution a scapegoat in this case. It would indicate insensitivity towards the realities of community colleges, which are non-residential and have tens of thousands of students studying in them. As a result they do not have either the resources or circumstance to offer the kind of support services that would be inevitable in any four-year residential program. Monitoring each and every student to note signs of behavioral oddity is almost as difficult as getting them active medical or professional assistance on campus even when it is noticed.
As Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, told Inside HigherEd, "the organization's latest survey found that while all community colleges offer services comprising academic and behavioral counseling, those with psychologists on staff are in the minority. Rather, the colleges are more likely to refer students to off-campus health professionals."
While colleges and society at large continue to explore better reactions and systems to deal with the threats arising from aberrant or disruptive behavior on campus, a few steps within the constraints of budget and numbers could at least reduce the chances of such incidents, feel experts. Writing in The New York Times, Marcus Hotaling, director of the Counseling Center at Union College refers to one method being used by many schools known as a behavioral intervention team (BIT). Hotaling describes this as "a group that comes together to eliminate the fragmented care that can happen when smaller groups of people have information, but the information is not shared. These teams are action-oriented, so a plan is typically made about who will reach out to a disruptive student, and how. Larger schools have also started to create satellite offices of counseling centers, which makes it easier to get access to care." The urgency and speed at which action is taken is also extremely important.
However, it holds equally true that the presence of the most agile and efficient counseling professionals or teams on campus would still not address situations where the offender resists any kind of assistance or drops out. In a country where mental and emotional illness is steeply on the rise among college students (as revealed by an official release from the American Psychological Association) and where issues surrounding infringement of personal liberties and privacy have attracted the most vehement reactions, effective tackling of disconcerting and indicative behavior may require deeper and more layered consideration of existing systems and policies.
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