MAXWELL: For a safe campus, use facts, not fear

2/21/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

During the last two weeks, St. Petersburg College officials had to shut down the Clearwater campus and the Gibbs campus in St. Petersburg.
The Clearwater campus incident involved a man who threatened his girlfriend with a BB gun as he drove her to class. Once on campus, the man kept his girlfriend’s keys and cell phone. She called the police. The St. Petersburg incident occurred when a tipster telephoned authorities and reported that a former male student, upset by a B grade in a science course, was threatening to come to campus “and do some damage.”
Fortunately, the kind of tragedies that occurred at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University did not hit SPC. From all indications, the college’s emergency system performed according to plan.
Still, real dangers exist, and administrators here and elsewhere nationwide are seeking a balance between keeping their campuses safe while protecting their students’ privacy rights. How, they ask, do they deal with students who are not “threatening” but who act “different” and are making students and staff “uncomfortable”?
In the wake of the NIU shootings, should schools start dismissing troubled students first and asking questions later?
In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Gary Pavela, a professor in the honors program at the University of Maryland and the author of the 2006 book Questions and Answers on College Student Suicide: A Law and Policy Perspective, argues that educators should not resort to what he refers to as “hair-trigger” and “pre-emptive” mental health dismissals.
The reasons, he writes, have more to do with educators’ primary responsibility of promoting safety and security on campus than with concerns about legal and civil liberties. Real safety and security can be achieved when students with disabilities, eccentricities and real or perceived mental health problems are accurately diagnosed.
When dismissing students, according to the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, officials should use the “best available objective evidence” that the students pose a “direct threat” to self and others. Students should not be profiled and dismissed because of unfounded fear, stereotypes and prejudice.
“The danger,” he argues, “is that pursuing the illusion of violence prediction will cause us to create the reality of hostile, suspicious, and fearful campuses, where candid communication breaks down, students become reluctant to tell teachers and administrators about friends in trouble, and where the stigma of mental illness (including the often overstated connection between mental illness and violence) inhibits everyone from seeking professional help.”
Pavela does not suggest that educators throw up their hands and passively wait for the next mass killing. Instead, he offers several tested strategies that can bring a strong measure of safety to our campuses while protecting the rights of students and maintaining general diversity.
For example, educators should focus on conduct, not stereotypes, fears or predictions. Students should be held accountable for all transgressions, even the small ones. The school should not automatically kick out troubled students. The aim is to be unequivocal about self-destructive or disruptive behavior, establishing limits that will encourage students to seek help.
Educators need to understand that suicide prevention is violence prevention. They should reach out to students at risk of suicide. By doing so, educators affirm the courage of students who seek help by showing respect for their decision, Pavela writes.
Schools should create what Pavela refers to as cross-functional threat-assessment teams that concentrate on “assembling and analyzing facts, not ‘profiling.’ Their primary purpose is to engage troubled students as early as possible, helping them receive appropriate professional help. The threat-assessment process can lead to disciplinary or law enforcement interventions, but enforcing rules isn’t the primary aim. A student expelled for violating college rules can slip onto campus with a weapon the next day. Coordination with local law enforcement and mental health services is essential.”
All students on campus should be encouraged to get involved. Pavela: “Students often see threatening behavior by their peers at early stages. They won’t report such behavior, or encourage their friends to seek professional help, if they believe administrators will routinely resort to pre-emptive dismissals. Administrators must be seen as individuals who can listen and exercise discretion.”
No one offers a panacea for making college and university campuses safe, but Pavela and others are correct when they argue that fear and pre-emptive actions do not promote safety and may, in fact, do just the opposite.
The aim should be getting to know all we can about “troubled” students by using the best available objective evidence. Then and only then can we provide appropriate assistance and create a safer environment while protecting everyone’s rights.