Colleges Put Out Safety Nets

In the year since Seung Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, colleges dramatically have expanded efforts to catch dangerous students in a safety net before they crash and take innocent victims down with them, school officials say.

"It's a different world since Virginia Tech," says Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Colleges are trying to reduce the chances of violence by creating or beefing up risk assessment teams that typically include faculty, residence advisers, psychologists, administrators and police, college administrators say. The teams meet often to review reports on students who seem disturbed. The reports are submitted by professors, residence advisers, police and students.

About 20 percent of colleges had assessment teams before the Virginia Tech murders, says Keith Anderson, a veteran counselor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "Now I don't know any college that hasn't either created a team or strengthened the one they had," Dungy says.

Although troubled students rarely attack classmates -- suicide is a far more common problem -- more students have mental disorders, and their problems are getting more serious, experts agree.

The percentage of students diagnosed with depression was 15% in 2007, up from 10 percent in 2000, according to surveys by the American College Health Association. And 23 percent coming to campus counseling centers are on psychiatric medicine, up from 9 percent in 1994, another survey shows.

The shift to more rigorous monitoring of students' lives comes as experts agree there is no sure way to prevent shootings.

"Anyone who wants to get a gun in this society can get a gun," says Richard Bonnie, a specialist in psychiatry and law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

An independent report in August on the Virginia Tech shootings recounts in chilling detail how many people noticed Cho's disturbing behavior and how little they communicated with one another. The risk teams provide a central place to lodge concerns.

"Very often, trouble with a student who's becoming psychotic or manic will surface in several areas at the same time -- athletic staff, sorority sister, professors will see changes," says Joan Whitney, counseling center director at Villanova University outside Philadelphia.

Many schools are training professors and staff members to look for troublesome signs, Dungy says. More professors and others on campus are consulting with counseling centers about "students of concern" since Virginia Tech, according to 66 percent of center directors in a new survey of 272 colleges.

"We coach professors in how to deal with students, and usually students welcome the attention," Whitney says. "They'll often say, 'Yes, I'm having trouble. I think I'm depressed.' Sometimes there's a painful breakup or another problem. It's rare that there's nothing going on when professors see students they're concerned about."

If there are serious problems, a student may be asked to get treatment. Parents may be informed if college officials are concerned, counselors says.

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