Notes on a tragedy

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 25, 2007

A student suspected of having, say, meningitis would not have been allowed to roam the campus untreated, endangering himself and others. So why was Cho’s mental illness not met with the same urgency?

One reason, Coakley suggests, is that the well-intentioned schoolmates, professors, police officers, school administrators, and mental-health professionals who wished to help, lacked a collaborative framework for their efforts. Working separately none had either the full range of information, expertise, options, or authority to act decisively and effectively.

“It’s important to have the team of people of different disciplines to intervene,” Coakley says. “The team can come together and feel more confident in their decision.”

Massachusetts has had success with that approach among its juvenile population. Each district attorney uses a community-based juvenile justice system, in which law-enforcement officials meet with school and mental-health professionals to discuss kids identified as problems. “They talk about the kid himself, and what can be done to help that kid in the situation,” Plymouth County district attorney Cruz says.

Critics say that school administrators too often use this system to learn about difficult students’ criminal or health problems, and then turn it into a pretext for removing such students from their halls. But Cruz insists that, handled properly, the process gets the child proper help, whether it involves anger management, drug counseling, or medication, to help them avoid a downward spiral — a spiral that, in the worst cases, can end in a tragedy like the one in Blacksburg.

But at the college level this approach is nearly impossible. Adult students have privacy protections that prevent shared access to medical and criminal records; notification of parents or others requires the individual’s authorization. “You just have no leverage,” says Thompson, the Belmont psychologist. “Everything is voluntary.”

Unfortunately, administrators are often in a bind; unable to force or even monitor treatment, they can only remove mentally ill students from campus for safety reasons, given sufficient cause. And doing so may only increase the student’s feelings of isolation and persecution.

Aggression toward women
Cho reportedly stalked a series of women, aggressively enough that two of them alerted police. His behavior so scared women that they feared being in class with him. His first victim — and apparently the only one he specifically targeted — was a woman; his day of killing began by going directly to her room in a dorm near his, and shooting her.

And certainly, his repeatedly scaring women — intentionally or not — should have been a warning sign, say both psychological and law-enforcement experts.

“That antisocial behavior is a warning signal that there’s a problem,” Coakley says.

Stalking women is one of the most reliable predictors of impending violent acts, says Bill Woodward, a faculty member at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV) at the University of Colorado.

And Englander points out that, in any case, women should not have to put up with the presence, on their campus, of a man who scares them with obsessive, tenacious, unwanted attention.

“Stalking is a crime in Massachusetts,” Englander says. “These kinds of crimes should be taken seriously.”

The question, says Thompson, is: when does weird, creepy behavior rise to that level? It’s a line that is tested on campuses everywhere. Thompson recalls one student who screamed and punched the walls of a woman who dumped him. “He was banned from campus for a year, because of the terrifying effect on the women in the dorm,” he says.

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