Earlier this month the nation observed the one-year anniversary of Virginia Tech, a tragedy perpetrated by a mentally ill college student now considered the most deadly shooting in American history.
In September 2007, a Delaware State University student shot two of his classmates, injuring one and killing the other. Six Northern Illinois University students died in February when a mentally ill graduate student opened fire in a lecture hall.
Along with these incidents are statistics published by the American Psychiatric Association and other organizations that indicate the number of college students with mental illnesses has increased significantly nationwide over the past decade. Universities across the country, including GW, are assessing the state of their mental health services and crisis response strategies to assure such tragedies never hit home.
In response to Virginia Tech, University President Steven Knapp formed a taskforce to thoroughly review campus safety and security. The taskforce’s committee on mental health and violence prevention determined that University officials were not properly communicating about mentally ill and potentially violent students.
“The level of communication among relevant officials on campus is not what it should be,” said Paul Duff, an associate dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the committee. He said his role in the body was to relay how CCAS responds when a student exhibits concerning behavior in class.
Duff said such communication occurs, but isn’t consistent, with Dean of Students Linda Donnels – a key player in the University’s response to threatening students. The University lacks formal procedure on how professors should communicate if they encounter a potentially violent student in class.
“With a faculty member, it might not occur for that person to contact the dean or department chair and then something potentially threatening would go unreported,” Duff said, adding that he has a strong relationship with Donnels.
He added that college professors who deal with students under stress and see strange behavior all the time are more likely to ignore it than report it to the University.
“You have a student who acts out in class, you think the student’s under pressure and that the next class will be fine,” Duff said. “Someone can be in a classroom 25 years (before) something serious happens and then you don’t know what to do.”
James Griffith, associate chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a member of the committee, echoed Duff’s concern about a lack of communication among University officials when a GW student starts exhibiting concerning behavior.
“There had not been a dialogue before the taskforce,” Griffith said. “We are all separate entities that would not otherwise have dealt with one another.”
Members of the committee include Griffith, Duff and representatives from the department of emergency medicine, the University Counseling Center, the department of human resources, the office of the general counsel, the office of media relations and the Student Association. Donnels chaired the committee with Jeffrey Akman, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
Griffith said the committee had the ultimate goal “to prevent anything like (Virginia Tech) from happening at GW,” even if that meant realizing some of the University’s current procedural shortfalls.
Another dilemma he raised with the committee is how to get potentially harmful or ill students the psychiatric treatment they need. This can be especially difficult considering that the University, the GW Hospital and the Medical Faculty Associates are separate entities.
“It would be a lot easier (to administer treatment) if they were all still part of the University, which they once were,” Griffith said, adding that they were “split asunder” in the late 90s for financial reasons.
Griffith said it would be ideal if the hospital could alert the University Police Department and the MFA when it identifies a threatening individual, but the fact that the entities are no longer linked makes the illegality of breaking doctor-patient confidentiality an even greater roadblock.
“Until the taskforce, no one really thought of this as a potential problem,” Griffith said, referring to the separate entities.
Because of the University’s unique location in D.C. it is not only subject to the Family Educational Rights and Policy Act – a Federal law designed to protect confidential education records – but also to D.C.’s mental health law, often considered heavily focused on individual privacy.
Last month the Department of Education clarified FERPA’s health and safety section to encourage university officials to invoke the law when necessary. FERPA specifies a different type of confidentiality than D.C.’s mental health law.
The federal law may now seem less restrictive to university officials, but the D.C. mental health law (the Mental Health Information Act of 1978) is one of the strictest in the country. It states information “may” be disclosed if an individual is hospitalized in an emergency or if the risk posed by the individual is “imminent and serious.”
“D.C. law is tilted very far to the autonomy side,” Griffith said. “It’s hard to compel people to get help.”
He added that D.C. professionals who see worrisome signs in their patients – but who do not identify a specific threat – cannot convey that information to a third party without a patient’s permission.
In her role as the dean of students, Donnels said she only needs to know a student is at a high level of risk to dispatch an ambulance or call parents. The details of the problem stay between patients and medical professionals, she said.
Donnels said it is extremely difficult to balance the privacy rights of students and the rights the GW community to stay safe. She added she encourages individuality among students.
“Not everyone who acts oddly will commit homicide or suicide,” Donnels said. “There are odd people in a population of 20,000 students, and that’s OK.”