Staff Editorial: Tragedy doesn’t justify poor policies

Within days after tragedy unfolded at Virginia Tech, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg appeared in the media, discussing implications for mental health in higher education. He also took the opportunity to address GW’s 2004 ejection of Jordan Nott, a student who sought counseling for suicidal thoughts. While the recent shootings have rightfully sparked a debate on dealing with psychologically troubled college students, it should by no means be used to justify GW’s policy.

In 2004, University administrators barred Nott from campus after he sought counseling for depression. Officials invoked GW’s “endangering behavior policy,” which gives the University the right to remove students who pose a suspected danger to themselves and others. In an April 19 op-ed column in The Washington Post, Trachtenberg defended the decision, saying, “Had the student stayed at GW and hurt himself or others, it’s likely the criticism would have been that the university should have done even more.”

Any major tragedy is sure to change perceptions and opinions about issues that are anything but cut and dry. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, it may indeed appear that GW was justified in ejecting a suicidal student who posed a potential threat. The recent tragedy an extremely troubled individual caused does not mean that GW is correct in authorizing expulsions of students with a broad range of mental health troubles. The University plans to launch a new policy in the fall, which adds more administrative oversight into the expulsion process, University officials told The Hatchet.

While the full details of the Nott case have not been released, it appears as if the student showed few previous signs of suicidal thoughts and approached the University to obtain counseling and help. This account stands in stark contrast to the case of Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, who had a history of serious mental health issues.

In many ways, comparing the recent shooting to the Nott case is an exercise in futility, as there are so many different considerations in each case of psychological disturbance. While each university is forced to institute a mental health policy that is right for that school, it remains clear that GW must be willing to consider a more thorough mental health evaluation process as opposed to a policy that allows for the immediate ejection of a student who seeks help for his or her psychological needs.

After the tragedy, a number of schools will no doubt respond with a knee-jerk reaction to the killings by expelling students who may be deemed a threat. A large number of young people face issues with depression and other mental health conditions, however, and not all of these individuals should be automatically considered the next campus murderer.

It may be dangerous for GW to receive such high visibility for its endangering behavior policy immediately following the tragedy. While Trachtenberg called for a “reasoned national dialogue” on mental health in higher education, GW’s policy leans toward the more extreme side of the spectrum. Instead of mandating counseling, evaluation or temporary leave, GW’s model allows for immediate removal, a model that many other schools may emulate. While GW is in the process of modifying its policy to be more “therapeutic,” as Trachtenberg stated, specific changes are not yet clear.

The immediate reaction to the Virginia Tech tragedy may lead down a slippery slope that results in the widespread expulsion of students with mental health needs. If GW appears as the standard bearer for this cause with its endangering behavior policy, negative media reaction may follow in the future when such policies are reconsidered.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the recent shootings will be a rational discussion on college mental health issues. While such a debate is difficult following high-visibility, senseless violence, it is still attainable.

Unfortunately, GW’s current policy errs on the side of extreme action by allowing instant expulsion of those who pose any sort of threat. While it is important for each individual school to figure out its own policy, the Virginia Tech shootings do not justify GW’s approach to mental health needs.

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