Universities mull privacy

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Universities mull privacy

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BLACKSBURG, Va. - The revelation that Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui had a documented history of psychological problems is likely to intensify an already heated debate about how campuses handle troubled students.

A number of high-profile court cases in recent years have centered on the constraints and responsibilities university officials confront in deciding whether to take pre-emptive action on behalf of at-risk students.

Christopher Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center at Virginia Tech, alluded to that difficulty in discussing Cho's history of strange behavior.

"There are lots of issues that are present on a college campus," Flynn said during a Wednesday press conference. "The extent to which we can make a judgment about whether someone is a danger is a separate issue."

For universities, it is an issue fraught with moral and legal complications. Officials have to balance concern for campus safety with an obligation to protect individual privacy, often with vague guidelines.

"Schools walk a real fine line," said Johnne Armentrout, assistant director of counseling services at Wake Forest University. "The tricky thing is that they face lawsuits on both sides, either from not doing enough or from violating their students' privacy rights."

Federal law prohibits universities from revealing a student's psychological problems, even to parents, unless they have a signed waiver or believe the student poses an imminent danger to himself or others.

Deciding when to break that confidentiality is difficult, but universities typically have erred on the side of protecting student privacy.

In recent cases, universities have prevailed in court against parents arguing that they should have been better informed about their children's psychological problems.

"When in doubt, my decision is to respect the student's right to privacy," said David McCord, head of the psychology department at Western Carolina University. "The students' right to privacy is mandatory training for all faculty."

But in the wake of Monday's tragedy at Virginia Tech, there already are calls for revisiting the circumstances when counselors can disclose potential threats. Flynn and other campus officials faced tough questions Wednesday about why Cho was not forced to seek more help when professors complained about his behavior.

"We certainly are always sensitive to the potential for violence," Flynn said. "That's a very difficult thing to predict clearly."

That uncertainty is what puts counselors in such a challenging position, said Robert Murphy, executive director of the Center for Child and Family Health, a joint venture between UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and N.C. Central universities. He said universities are likely to review their policies in the aftermath of Monday's shooting.

"Legally, our society has come down more on the side of the individual client or patient rights," Murphy said. "There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in this country who might present with similar warning signs but never go on to commit an act like this, and that's the really tricky part."

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Original Source:<a href=http://media.www.dailytarheel.com/media/storage/paper885/news/2007/04/19/StateNational/Universities.Mull.Privacy-2851714.shtml>Daily Tar Heel - April 19, 2007</a>

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Erin France and Eric Johnson

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Daily Tar Heel

Date

2007-07-27

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Sara Hood

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Kevin Schwartz <kschwartz@unc.edu>

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eng

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Erin France and Eric Johnson, "Universities mull privacy," in The April 16 Archive, Item #834, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/834 (accessed July 22, 2014).