Experts: Signs of Disturbed Students Can Be Dealt With By Colleges

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As the country still reels from the Virginia Tech shooting massacre while trying to piece together what happened on April 16, college and university campuses around the world are united in asking themselves one question: How do they prevent another Virginia Tech from happening right here?

There don't seem to have been any surprises about the shooter. He reads almost like a checklist of the American Psychological Association's warning signs of youth violence: A sullen loner with no real social network, a fascination with guns, deep and disproportionate feelings of anger and being disrespected, a history of problems with teachers, and an apparent inability to connect with or empathize with others.

"As with the student on Monday, there might be writings, drawings that exhibit violence of harm to self or others, withdrawal, a change in friends, sleeping or eating patterns, changes in grades or involvement in school activities, thinking about suicide, giving away of belongings meaningful to them, a fascination with violence or violent things," said Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association.

Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director for the National Association of School Psychologists, said it's important to look at the whether a student has a network of friends and family from whom he or she can get emotional relief.

"We hear over and over and over of these individuals being loners, having no social network, seeming depressed or unhappy," he said. "When you have a situation where the shooter's own roommate said he had little or no relationship with him, to not be able to socially engage with a kid who he was rooming with, that would be a red flag for me."

But in the case of Cho Seung-Hui, as America has learned, the signs were frighteningly clear to his professors and classmates, and they took the steps they could to help him. Professors repeatedly referred Cho to school counselors, and there are some reports he may have been on antidepressants. One professor went so far as to invent a code word so her assistant could go for help if Cho caused trouble.

"The professor was right on target," Feinberg said. "There should have been better ways for the system to be responsive to her concerns, and even though the young man had the prerogative to decline getting counseling help, that shouldn't have been the end of the discussion."

Cho did eventually get counseling at an independent center off campus.

The most important thing for a fellow student, family member or a professor to do, according to experts, is to let a troubled person know that there are places for him or her to turn to, whether it be school counselors, a religious figure, friends, or yourself.

"One thing to do very well may be having a conversation with the person," Cook said. "It may not lead to anything, but if something in your gut tells you something's wrong, reach out to parents, to someone who's close to the students, people who can get the student some help."

According to Feinberg, that means getting school administrations to be more active in offering help to troubled students, as well as trying to help overcome the social stigma against people with mental-health disorders.

"Schools have to understand that they have a responsibility, and that helping them to grow both academically and socially and emotionally aren't discrete aspects in a child's life," he said. "Clearly, we can't strong-arm people to get counseling help even though the signals or behaviors they're manifesting are the clarion calls for folks to get help, but that area between their declining help and [us] doing nothing is the critical element of this whole discussion."

Feinberg acknowledged, however, that putting more pressure on students to get counseling help might have the opposite of the effect intended — causing someone to lash out earlier than he or she would have, or further stigmatizing students who are already on the fringes of campus society.

James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and a former member of the President Bill Clinton's advisory panel of youth and school violence, said singling out or profiling certain students could create an atmosphere that would be abhorrent to the very notion of what a university is supposed to be about.

"There are thousands of other students around the countryside who have the exact same profile and have come the attention of faculty who have recommended they seek counseling," he said. "I've had students over my 30-odd years who've fit that character. But the overwhelming majority won't shoot up their classmates. It's a rare event, hard to prevent, and we need to keep our campuses open — not just safe, but open. It's unfortunate, but this kind of episode is one of the prices we pay for our freedoms."

Right now, Fox said, the most important preventive measure against the next Virginia Tech or Columbine is one that the media needs to take.

"We can do a lot of overreaction, we can heighten security to levels that are inappropriate in terms of cost and necessity, but one thing we can certainly try to do is tone down the discussion of this being the biggest, the baddest, the deadliest on record," he said. "That just invites a few other people who identify not with the victims but the perpetrator to see if they can make another record. By saturating the public with images and reminders of the horrors we in the process turn the perpetrator in a celebrity and invite others to follow in his bloody footsteps."

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