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Students are often in turmoil, so how to spot real danger?
San Francisco Chronicle


April 18, 2007

Cho Seung-Hui was different from his classmates at Virginia Tech. Students said he wasn't outgoing and he refused to talk.

Professors said his writings were dark and dwelt on violence.

Yet, at colleges everywhere, there are students who fit that description.




Some are moody post-adolescents, testing the waters of adulthood and stretching the boundaries of social acceptance.

Others are on the edge, capable of hurting themselves, or in Cho's case, others too.

The hard part - especially on campuses with tens of thousands of students - is figuring out which is which.

It's not always easy finding the disturbed or dangerous student, university officials say, but it's possible to separate the moody artists from the truly disturbed.

At the University of California-Santa Barbara, Dean of Students Yonie Harris has seen both. She's read the violence-filled essays of creative students striving for shock value.

And, six years ago, she remembers the mentally ill freshman who drove a car down the sidewalk of the adjacent student community, Isla Vista, killing four people.

Since the 2001 incident, Harris said, the university has become even more vigilant in identifying students who need help.

"You really want to be able to pick things up," she said. It's also important to have procedures in place to then deal with those students.

But that requires enough counselors and services too, she said.

Providing that support has become a significant issue for higher education as students with complicated and serious mental-health histories are increasingly showing up at college campuses, in part the result of the stabilizing effects of prescription drugs.

"Modern medications have made it possible for students with rather severe psychological problems to be successful in high school and go to college," Harris said. "It's a tremendous challenge across the nation for universities to have sufficient staff and services available to meet the growing demand."

Every year, UC-Santa Barbara's faculty and staff members are given a booklet called, "Responding to Distressed Students," which outlines behavior or other signs to look for in the individuals.

Phone numbers of administrators, counselors and a social worker are included.

The social worker is especially critical in helping discern a creative student from a safety risk. The social worker could contact friends, dorm staff or teachers to get a complete picture of the student.

If there's a problem, university officials convene a small group to assess matters - a meeting that can be held within an hour depending on the urgency of the situation.

The student's family could be called, a referral made for mental-health services, or in extreme cases, the student could be asked to leave or be expelled.

Procedures at the Santa Barbara campus are very similar to recommendations from the National Crime Prevention Council.

"Whether you're preventing a bank robber or this kind of heinous event, there's always signs," said Jean O'Neil, the organization's director of research.

While campuses nationwide recognize the possibility of campus violence, it was unclear how many have developed plans as comprehensive as Santa Barbara's.

The real issue for schools or colleges is having someone qualified that students or faculty can go to confidentially when they identify those signs, O'Neil said.

In Cho's case, students and teachers said they did share concerns that the 23-year-old's behavior was erratic; he apparently was referred to counseling.

At San Francisco's Academy of Art University, officials know how difficult it can be to deal with students they consider disturbed or a threat.

In 2004, the academy expelled a student who had submitted a shocking essay for a creative-writing class that included explicit violence.

The public uproar over the expulsion was overwhelming. Students and nationally renowned authors demonstrated against the officials, saying the action violated freedom of expression.

School officials stood by the decision - then and now.

"I don't think there's a parent of any student out there who would want to send their child to our school if we were negligent about their safety and security," campus vice president Sue Rowley said at the time.

Cho's writing sounded "very similar" to what the academy has seen before, Sallie Huntting, executive vice president of public relations, said Tuesday.

"You can't ignore these things," she said. "You can't say it's free speech. You must look a little deeper."

But it's a fine line, Huntting said, deciding when something is disturbing and when something is art.

"You must take it to the proper authorities or proper people to evaluate," she said. "It is your responsibility to do that. It is our responsibility to do that."


E-mail Jill Tucker at jtucker(at)
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Ketchikan, Alaska