Virginia Tech panel discusses prevention strategies

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Virginia Tech panel discusses prevention strategies

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<b>Experts in fields of security, law and mental health comprise panel; victims&#39; families voice reactions</b>

Daniel Colbert, Cavalier Daily Senior Writer

Thursday, April 19, while the nation was still coming to grips with the tragedy that had unfolded in Blacksburg three days earlier, Gov. Tim Kaine created an eight-member panel of experts in the fields of security, law and mental health to investigate fully what had gone wrong and what could be done to help prevent a similar incident in the future. Last Wednesday, the panel held what was to be its last public meeting -- it has since been announced that another will follow -- at the University. While the panel heard testimony on topics as wide-ranging as community mental health services and gun control laws, much of the discussion centered on the unique challenges faced in servicing and protecting a college population.

Beyond "lockdown"

As schools consider the most efficient and safe methods for responding to threats such as an active shooter on campus, lockdowns are a common solution. In fact, much of the panel&#39;s discussion of security procedures focused on the appropriateness and plausibility of a campus-wide lockdown; however, all of the law enforcement experts who testified at the meeting in Charlottesville suggested that responding to such an event is not so simple.

"I think we have this impression that we hit a switch and everything is locked and everything is secure, and that is not the case," said Don Challis, chief of police at the College of William & Mary.

Challis testified that a lockdown creates a "target-rich environment" in the academic buildings where students congregate. He instead recommended that colleges advise students to take refuge in their own rooms or other safe places. Challis emphasized that colleges need to make it clear in advance what would be expected of students in a crisis situation.

"Hope is not a plan," Challis said. "We can&#39;t hope that when something happens these people hang on our words and do what we say."

Avoiding a tragedy

Perhaps the most vexing question surrounding the Virginia Tech tragedy regards the various warning signs of the danger that shooter Seung-Hui Cho posed to others. The panel spent much of the morning hearing ways for universities to more readily identify a troubled student.

Central to the goal of pre-emptive action are Threat Assessment Teams. These teams, present at many schools though not formally at the University, are made of up administrators, deans and law enforcement officers that meet to identify and evaluate potential threats posed by students, according to Challis&#39;s testimony.

Both Challis and Dr. James Madero, a professor at Alliant International University, testified that teams like these can be helpful in preventing school violence.

"It needs to be a campus-wide group that includes ... people who have the most contact with students," Challis said. "If they see a flag, they can run that by others."

The panel also heard testimony on the effectiveness of campus psychological services, primarily from Russell Federman, University director of counseling and psychological services.

Federman pointed to the low suicide rate at the University-- three suicides in the last seven years, which is less than a third of the national average -- as evidence that CAPS is effective in dealing with high-risk individuals.

Among the factors contributing to this success, he said, are frequent communication between the administration, faculty and CAPS to determine individuals who may pose threats and follow-up procedures for high-risk individuals who do not appear for counseling.

"My hunch is that if Mr. Cho had been involuntarily hospitalized at U.Va. [as he was at Virginia Tech before the shootings occurred], CAPS staff would have become involved with him much earlier," Federman said.

Not everyone was satisfied with Federman&#39;s reasoning, however. Holly Sherman, whose daughter Leslie was a victim of the shootings, told reporters she thought the procedures Federman described were "very similar" to those in place at Virginia Tech before the shootings.

Although he said he was confident that academic deans would have contacted CAPS about a student exhibiting the strange behaviors attributed to Cho, Federman said in a later interview he also could not say with certainty that CAPS would have prevented the shooting.

"We can&#39;t buy into the illusion that we can control the uncontrollable," Federman said. "The bottom line is if someone chooses to be violent, he or she can be without us being able to stop that."

Issues of confidentiality

One of the hotly debated issues of the day was the importance of students&#39; rights, as adults, to privacy regarding their mental health records.

Panelist Diane Strickland, Law School alumna and former dean of Student Legal Services, asked if CAPS had access to the mental health records of incoming first-year students while another panelist, Dr. Roger Depue, said he wondered if such information would prove to be helpful.

Privacy concerns dictate that the University does not have such access, Federman answered, but that is not necessarily a problem for CAPS.

Mandatory on-Grounds housing for first-year students ensures that mental health problems are observed quickly by Resident Staff or fellow students, Federman said. He added that even if mental health professionals had access to background information on a student, it would not always be necessary in deciding how to proceed with treatment.

Several victims&#39; parents expressed concern that privacy issues may hinder communication between administrators about students who present potential threats and may prevent mental health professionals from informing parents if their children seek psychological help.

The experts testifying were divided over whether privacy laws make it difficult to share information among administrators. While Challis testified that privacy laws sometimes make it difficult to determine what information can be shared legally, other experts did not believe this to be the case.

"I have been very alarmed by the perception that the law somehow impedes colleges and universities from doing what they think to be the right thing," University law Prof. Richard Bonnie said.

Parental involvement does not always help mental health professionals treat students, Federman said, and it is rarely absolutely necessary. College represents a time of transition between dependency and autonomy for many students, and he said he believed, in most cases, automatically involving parents would undermine that transition.

"That&#39;s quite different from a very acute situation where we&#39;re looking at issues of violence and danger to self and where we absolutely need the family involved to help us prevent a tragic outcome," Federman said.

During the panel&#39;s meeting, Federman resisted a call from Tom Ridge, former secretary of homeland security, to develop standardized guidelines for informing parents when their children seek psychological help, but assured the panel that mental health professionals would breach privacy laws if a situation demanded it.

Several of the victims&#39; parents present were unsatisfied with the explanations.

"I worry about a society that places individual rights in such a high regard that it jeopardizes public safety," said Catherine Read, step-mother of victim Mary Read.

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Original Source:<a>http://www.cavalierdaily.com/CVArticle.asp?ID=30458&pid=1596>The Cavalier Daily - July 26, 2007</a>

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Daniel Colbert

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2007-07-31

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Sara Hood

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Meggie Bonner <meggiebonner@gmail.com>

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Daniel Colbert, "Virginia Tech panel discusses prevention strategies," in The April 16 Archive, Item #869, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/869 (accessed October 25, 2014).