A year after a mentally ill student at Virginia Tech preceded his suicide with a shooting spree that killed 32 people, universities nationwide are still scrambling to figure out how to identify and disarm their own potential ticking time-bombs.
Administrators from all of Utah's major colleges gathered Tuesday at Utah Valley University to discuss how faculty members can prevent school violence by helping to deal with mental-health issues on campus.
"Not only was this subject triggered in our minds by the Virginia Tech incident, but it is actually happening on our campuses," said Lucille Stoddard, associate commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education. "We desperately need more counselors. We desperately need more mental-health workers. We desperately need more facilities to deal with these problems on campus."
Statewide, the number of people seeking psychiatric care has doubled since 1996. Nearly 11 percent of Utah college and university students seriously contemplated suicide during 2007, according to a Utah System of Higher Education survey. Another 1.5 percent an estimated 2,000 students actually attempted suicide.
"Any of us who have been on any campus for any time at all have experienced feelings of fear, helplessness and distress as we watched students who need our help go without," Stoddard said.
Some universities across the country, still shell-shocked by Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho's violent rampage, have started booting students with psychiatric issues out of school. Other colleges are contemplating arming their faculty members or installing high-tech security systems. Most institutions are assembling threat-assessment teams, composed of school administrators, mental-health professionals and law-enforcement officials.
Gary Pavela, keynote speaker at the Tuesday conference, used a line from the Secret Service's post-Columbine study of school shootings to summarize effective prevention: "The only real way of preventing school violence is to get into the students' heads and hearts."
The first people to suspect a student is about to boil over are other students, said Pavela, a judicial policy expert at the University of Maryland who recently wrote a book on student suicide.
"We know in almost all rampage shootings, including Virginia Tech, there were early indications of not just someone who was troubled, but someone who had crossed the line of being troubled to becoming an imminent risk," he said. "We need to be in tune with what our students are thinking and observing."
To prevent outbursts of violence, Pavela suggested providing mentors for students, encouraging creativity and keeping the lines of communication open.
Most past school shooters have suffered from profound depression, he said. In the mind the shooter, staging a massacre at their school serves two purposes: It ends their own life and punishes people for what the shooter believes is a lack of respect.
Violence was circumvented at at least one school because a student, reluctant to kill a favorite professor, backed out of a group-planned shooting and notified authorities, Pavela said.
"The core of the message is to reiterate what, as faculty and staff, we're supposed to be doing now: teaching and listening," he said.
In building these teacher-student relationships, Pavela stressed the importance of maintaining an environment of academic freedom that rewards creative thinking. Some of society's greatest thinkers, including Albert Einstein, struggled with mental-health problems and bucked authority.
Eccentricity should be met with tolerance, Pavela said, noting that the student who "wears spiky jewelry" or dresses in a trench coat shouldn't be immediately categorized as a threat. Bad behavior, though, should be addressed immediately.
"It's wise to pay attention to the small infractions, to hold people accountable right off," he said. "If a students acts violently, no matter how minor, the student needs to be held responsible, regardless of their mental condition."
Staying on the lookout for behavioral patterns does not mean faculty and staff need to live in fear. The murder rate on college campuses is low compared to the national average, Pavela said. Studies show college students are committing suicide half as frequently as their non-student peers.
"Teaching college is the safest profession we have any data about," he said.
E-MAIL: [email protected]