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Assessing Faculty Safety

When the news came out that a mentally-disturbed student had methodically gunned down 32 students and professors at Virginia Tech, Kathryn Murphy-Judy felt a special kind of horror.

The associate professor of language and literature at Virginia Commonwealth University knew two of the Virginia Tech language instructors — French teacher Jocelyne Couture-Nowak and German teacher Christopher James Bishop — who were shot and killed on April 16. “Two of my colleagues are gone. It affects me personally,” says Murphy-Judy, who teaches French at VCU.

Murphy-Judy says the mood among her fellow professors is more of concern for the students than of faculty self-preservation. But faculty members are reassessing their safety. For example, the VCU Faculty Senate, where Murphy-Judy serves as president, has held special meetings to review teacher security. At the same time, they are trying to keep their perspective. “We’re looking at this globally. At least as many people are dying every day in Iraq,” she says.

Even though attacks on college professors are not common, the horrific slayings at Virginia Tech show just how much at risk they can be when they try to do their jobs. They face formidable obstacles, such as working in open classroom environments in states where lax gun laws make it easy to get weapons. Even if mentally unstable students can be identified, legal issues make it difficult to get them out of the classroom and into a mental facility.

Although an increasing number of students are seeking help for mental health issues from campus counselors, privacy laws make it hard for admissions officials to identify early on students who may require intervention. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prohibits the release of medical records, preventing college admissions officials from screening prospective students for mental health problems.

In classes, professors simply can’t know how students will react if they object to course subject matter or if they receive failing grades or ones they believe are unfair.

In December 2005, for example, an associate professor in the department of clinical laboratory and nutritional sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell was stabbed by a student who was incensed by his failing grade. In 2002, Robert Stewart Flores, a 41-year-old divorced father of two and a veteran of the 1990 Gulf War, shot and killed three teachers at the University of Arizona nursing school. Flores was receiving failing grades and exacted revenge with two handguns and 200 rounds of ammunition.

After the Arizona slayings, the university began a thorough review of all of its policies regarding what to do with unruly or potentially violent students. According to Carol Thompson, the university’s assistant vice provost for student affairs, the school has also created a “Behavioral Assessment Team,” comprised of mental health specialists and university police who can quickly evaluate students who may be potential threats.

After the Virginia Tech shootings, “we got calls from our faculty wanting to know that support was available. They wanted to know what our resources were,” Thompson says.

While many attacks are unpredictable, professors can still look for warning signs that students are mentally unbalanced and could become violent. Suspect students can be unusually isolated or aloof. They can produce creative work that suggests instability, particularly if it is excessively violent. One check, says Mary Zdanowicz, the executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national mental health lobby, “is to ask them to write about something else other than violence, and if they couldn’t, that’s a sign.”

College professors often confront the first signs of student’s mental instability. Suggestions of some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia don’t clearly manifest themselves until a person is in his or her late teens or early 20s, says Zdanowicz.

“It is a gray and difficult area,” says Ada Meloy, the director of legal and regulatory affairs at the American Council of Education. “Normally, professors are masters of their classrooms, but if the issue goes beyond the classroom, teachers need to take it to people who have more experience.”

Ironically, that’s exactly what happened at Virginia Tech, with tragic results. Famed poet and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni became concerned in 2005 that one of her creative writing students, Seung-Hui Cho, was unstable. Sullen in class, Cho wrote poetry that was filled with disturbing images. Female students stopped going to class after complaining that Cho was photographing them.

Giovanni moved to exclude Cho from her course. She alerted her then-department head, Lucinda Roy, another famed writer, who informed university officials and campus police about Cho’s disturbing behavior. But Roy hit a legal roadblock. Officials said that they couldn’t do anything about Cho, according to state law, unless he was deemed to be a threat to himself or others.

After a second incident, the university demanded that Cho undergo a mental health examination, but he was released without action. Because Virginia law does not require mental health background checks on individuals buying firearms, Cho was legally able to buy the two automatic pistols and ammunition he used to murder 27 students and five professors before killing himself.

For now, some expect that issues such as laws covering mental health and gun control may be revised.

“The professors did recognize that something was wrong and did try to take action, but they were rebuffed,” says Zdanowicz.

–Peter Galuzska

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