Loner or Psychopath?

How a college might detect and help a student who’s ready to explode.

Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui

What are universities supposed to do about students like Cho Seung-Hui? In retrospect, the answer seems obvious: Save the rest of the campus from them. As we learn more about Cho’s years at Virginia Tech, we may conclude that the school missed clear warning signs. Two women students reported Cho for stalkinglike activities in fall 2005, and, after the second incident, a roommate told the police that Cho had talked about suicide. Cho voluntarily went to the campus police in December 2005, and they sent him for a psychiatric evaluation. After a counselor recommended involuntary commitment, a judge committed Cho for a brief stay at a psychiatric hospital in Virginia. During that semester as well as later, three English teachers had concerns about Cho because his writing scared other students. These teachers reported their worries to the police, university administrators, and the campus mental-health center. Finally, there are Cho’s plays —vivid and brutal.

One by one, these facts don’t point to a psychopath about to cut loose. But together, they suggest a student to whom campus police and counselors should have been alert. The cops and the shrinks and the university administration didn’t put together the pieces about Cho, and it’s worth probing why not—a process that has already begun.

But at other schools across the country, the challenge is different. The worry is that universities will overreact, as secondary schools did after Columbine, when every deviant-seeming kid who drew a picture of a gun or muttered about killing the principal was fodder for suspension or worse. In a New York Times op-ed today, Oakland University engineering professor Barbara Oakley writes that “for every deranged murderer like Mr. Cho there are thousands more oddballs just below the breaking point.” In a week like this one, such alarmism is probably inevitable. But what’s more important is that thousands of students attend college who struggle with depression and other mental illnesses, and almost all of them hurt no one and deserve to stay there. Identifying the Cho-type exceptions before they explode is a matter of good campus police work and counseling, not harsh, interventionist crackdowns.

One of the most renowned mental-health programs in the country, at the University of Illinois, mandates counseling as a condition of staying in school for students who attempt suicide.  Colleges are more accustomed to thinking about suicidal students than homicidal ones, because violent crime by college students is so rare. But Illinois also has a well-established policy for dealing with students who threaten others. “We involve police, our disciplinary office, sometimes the counseling center to do an assessment,” says Paul Joffe, who chairs the university’s suicide-prevention team. “Also, we put the student on notice that they’ve crossed a line.” The idea isn’t to get rid of students with problems, it’s to get them the help they need so they can stay.

That’s how it works most of the time. Cho’s English teachers said that when they complained to administrators about his writings, they were told the university couldn’t respond because he hadn’t done anything violent and had a clean record. (This is where the 2005 police contact and in-patient stay seem to have gotten lost.) But sometimes, college mental-health providers decide that a problem student warrants action. Eileen Bazelon has been the resident psychiatrist at Bryn Mawr College for more than 30 years. (Yes, it’s a good day when my mom is my best source.) She told me about two students who she decided were a threat to others’ safety. One student wrote a paper in which she threatened to burn down her dorm, and told her professor about the idea. “We got her to go home,” my mother said—talked her into leaving rather than requiring her to withdraw. “I felt there was enough possibility that she’d actually do it to make it unsafe for her to be on campus.” The other student was also a potential pyro. She left school after the college discovered that she had a record for juvenile arson, that she’d been lighting cans of hair spray, and that she had set a pair of jeans on fire in her dorm room. A few days after she returned home, the student burned down her family garage.

My mother says that in her view, when students make threats or actually set fires, “underreaction is worse than overreaction.” Paul Joffe told me that in the wake of the Blacksburg tragedy, the University of Illinois is talking about tracking students who express “significant homicidal ideation”—talk generally about death and killing—as well as those who make specific threats.

What about the legal constraints that schools face in handling mentally ill students? In the last few years, a few schools have been sued for violating disability-rights laws by students they asked to withdraw or to leave the college dormitories. Those cases have spooked other schools about taking such steps, even to the point that they fear telling parents about students’ troubles. According to Gary Pavela, the director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park, and the author of Questions and Answers on College Student Suicide, schools do take a legal risk when they put into place policies that mandate leave, rather than evaluating cases as they arise. It’s also true that, for the most part, state laws governing involuntary commitment set a high threshold for sending a person to a mental hospital against his will.

But there are good reasons to be wary of lowering that bar—involuntary commitment can be wielded as a weapon as well as a tool. And the laws don’t mean schools can’t support case-by-case suspensions or withdrawals, like the Bryn Mawr incidents. As for notifying parents, Pavela said in a live chat last summer with the Chronicle of Higher Education that the trend is toward telling parents more rather than less, the side he errs on when students attempt, or gesture toward, suicide.

Before we start rewriting laws or spurring schools into 180-degree policy swivels, it’s worth pointing out that as yet, there’s no evidence that Cho refused treatment. He was recommended for counseling after his brief hospitalization. It is possible that he simply fell through the cracks. Good mental-health care is about persuasion as much as detention orders. We need campus mental-health centers that pay close attention and work with campus police to do the careful piecework that sorts the real threats from the sad sacks.

Cho’s roommates said in television interviews this week that he stopped talking to them months ago, and that in the year they knew him, they “never saw him with anyone.” But then they added that he wasn’t the only loner. The other kids they were talking about haven’t hurt anyone. Even this week, we need to remember them, too.