Staff Editorial: Standardize stance on privacy rights, watch health issues

In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy last spring, GW like many area schools was forced to re-examine both its campus safety and mental health procedures. Now after the reports issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia and Virginia Tech, President Stephen Knapp has wisely created a GW task force composed of two entities – the Committee on Safety and Security and the Committee on Mental Health and Violence Prevention.

Although GW addressed these issues immediately after the events of Virginia Tech, this is a situation which we should not hesitate to devote extra time, resources and energy. In fact, it is something we cannot afford to neglect.

Living in D.C. always demands a strong emphasis on campus safety, but perhaps for GW the most important issue here is a renewed emphasis on mental safety. After the case of Jordon Nott, a GW student who was suspended in 2004 and charged with violating the Code of Student Conduct when he told University Counseling Center employees he had thoughts of suicide, GW must standardize its stance on privacy rights when they come in conflict with mental health issues and public safety. Along those lines, compassion and concern for the afflicted individual must be a valid concern.

Any situation dealing with mental health cannot be one-size-fits-all. While the University must treat each case as the potential threat that it is, it must not do so to the degree of discouraging students that truly need mental help from seeking it. Last spring this page called for GW to exercise caution in avoiding extremes in dealing with mental health cases on campus. While not an immediate fix, the approach of a comprehensive review is necessary and encouraging for all concerned.

The attitude from top administrators is especially appropriate in this case. “I’m not making any presumptions that there are things that need to be changed,” President Stephen Knapp told The Hatchet about the situation. Even though policies may not change, the important thing is that they are being scrutinized from a new perspective. This task force, comprised of vice-presidents, the chief of the University Police Department, student leaders and psychiatry and behavioral scholars allows for lines of communication. Yet this is an issue that will never go away for any university.

Hopefully the outcome of the task force will help to standardize the ways students communicate with the University Counseling Center. While UCC has a vital responsibility to report intent of possible harm to a student or other persons a patient must be confident that there is a set of standards in place to help guarantee appropriate action. “We have an obligation to ensure the safety of everyone, including individuals who might be proving to be a threat,” President Knapp said. Thus the task force should take this opportunity to outline what information could be released.

As vital as mental health issues are for college students across the country, GW has an elevated interest in ensuring physical safety for students. After Sept. 11, the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management was established, and UPD recently created the Violence Awareness and Mitigation Program. However, even the most pro-active initiatives are not going to be as effective as possible unless students are consciously aware of the programs in place to aid them in an emergency. Virginia Tech served as a brutal reminder that safety on any college campus is often lost sight of until tragedy hits.

The entire GW community should embrace this opportunity to have an active discussion surrounding campus policies on the front of physical and mental safety. Only when such policies are re-examined and communicated to the whole student body can campus concerns of mental health and safety truly be addressed.

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