The tragedy of Virginia Tech is partly a tragedy of bureaucracy

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The tragedy of Virginia Tech is partly a tragedy of bureaucracy

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<b>From the Editor</b>

May/June 2007
by <a href="mailto:kathrin.lassila@yale.edu">Kathrin Day Lassila</a> &#39;81

<b>The tragedy of Virginia Tech is partly a tragedy of bureaucracy.</b>

I don&#39;t mean the sort of complaint people usually make about bureaucracy -- too much paperwork and red tape. I mean the opposite. Too few records. Too little discussion and sharing of information. Too few staff, perhaps.

I&#39;m not blaming the state of Virginia or Virginia Tech for failing to stop a determined murderer. But enough bureaucracy, of the right kind, would have given them a chance. The gun salesman would have known Seung-Hui Cho had a history of mental illness and wasn&#39;t entitled to buy guns. The associate dean who told a worried professor last fall that she hadn&#39;t heard of any previous problems would have known about the two complaints to the police and the judge&#39;s ruling that Cho was a danger to himself.

The competing needs for privacy and protection can&#39;t be perfectly balanced.

Colleges and universities serve a vulnerable demographic. Usually, "major mental illness first shows itself somewhere between the ages of 17 to around 25," says Lorraine Siggins, chief psychiatrist at Yale Health Services. Against those rare but terrible events, universities need discreet and careful systems. If a student has trouble and the trouble is resolved, the university has to leave the student alone to live the ordinary turbulent life of a young adult, in privacy, without stigma. But if trouble recurs, the right administrator has to be able to find out fast that this isn&#39;t the first time.

The competing needs for privacy and protection can&#39;t be perfectly balanced. After VT, says Betty Trachtenberg, dean of student affairs at Yale College, university officials everywhere thought, <i>There, but for the grace of God . . .</i>

But it&#39;s easier to have good systems and enough staff at a wealthy, relatively small private institution than a large public institution. Siggins speaks of a "web" of people at Yale who act as a safety net. Medical privacy rules prevent her staff from taking action or sharing information on any patient unless that patient is an immediate "threat to self or others." (She wouldn&#39;t comment on how often that happens and said Health Services doesn&#39;t give out statistics.) Instead, "what most frequently happens is that the person comes to people&#39;s attention in lots of different ways."

The campus police report any incident involving a student to the disciplinary committee and the student&#39;s dean. In Yale College, the 12 residential college deans are the people who, says Trachtenberg, "notice when somebody&#39;s in trouble." In the professional schools, relationships with teachers and fellow students serve this need, as most schools have small student bodies (from 120 art students to 670 law students). The Graduate School has only two associate deans of student affairs for 2,600 students. But Graduate School dean Jon Butler says the 50-plus department directors of graduate studies are the people who call his office when a student is in trouble.

Once the warning flags go up, administrators can, for instance, suspend a student or require the student to seek treatment. In a meeting after the VT massacre, Trachtenberg and the deans of the colleges agreed that Cho&#39;s multiple episodes of stalking and frightening students -- "behavior that is not consistent with living in a community" -- would have triggered action.

Not that they can be certain. "It&#39;s very hard to think that something like this would fall through the cracks" at Yale, says Trachtenberg. "Nevertheless, I am knocking wood as I talk to you."

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Original Source: <a href="http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/current/editor.html">http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/current/editor.html</a>

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Kathrin Day Lassila

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2007-06-11

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Sara Hood

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Permission granted by author Kathrin Lassila, kathrin.lassila@yale.edu

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eng

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Kathrin Day Lassila , "The tragedy of Virginia Tech is partly a tragedy of bureaucracy," in The April 16 Archive, Item #480, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/480 (accessed October 31, 2014).