Students of Concern: Who’s Really Sitting Next to You?

For five years, he was just another student who blended in on campus. From his appearance, there was really nothing to indicate he could present a danger. However, Jared Loughner slowly caught the eye of students, faculty and administrators as being a student of concern.

A YouTube video created by Loughner calling his college a “genocide school” and including ramblings about how the school violates the U.S. Constitution was the final straw which caused his college’s administrators to indefinitely suspend him until he agreed to a psychiatric evaluation. He never returned. Four months later, Loughner was accused of attempting to assassinate a member of Congress and killing eight people, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge, during the alleged shooting rampage at a Tucson, Ariz. grocery store.

According to the Associated Press, some critics have said Loughner’s community college should have done more to prevent the shooting. Critics claim the college should have gone a step further and sought to force Loughner into counseling. However, college officials said their response is appropriate.

Colleges around the country are looking at and reassessing the ways that they handle concerns about students in the aftermath of this national event.

At Northern Kentucky University, a committee was formed in the fall 2010 semester to take referrals from community members about students that raise alarms.

The Students of Concern Committee has already taken six referrals since its inception.

In a fall 2010 interview about the rising number of suicide attempts among NKU students, Waple talked about the reason behind the creation of the committee.

“There have been some classroom disruption issues,” Waple said, adding that some professors have also been concerned about things students have written in class assignments. “And, that’s kind of why this group has been formed.”

The group consists of staff members from across the university, including NKU Police, the Dean of Students, Health and Counseling, and Legal Affairs.

The committee takes referrals from anyone on campus and assesses if the university should take any action.

“The Students of Concern Committee is to use reasonable discretion, based on a record of relevant materials to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of the student involved and the entire campus community,” Waple said.

To accomplish this, the Dean of Students will often call a student in for an interview in order to better understand the situation. After reviewing all the materials, the committee develops an action plan.

“Plans developed may range from simply maintaining a confidential record of the reported behavior, or, in severe circumstances, may progress to an involuntary withdrawal of a student from the University or a referral to a disciplinary hearing,” Waple said.

To develop the plans, the committee may request access to a student’s health records and examine their mental health history. The committee may also ask for an independent or on-campus medical or psychological assessment from licensed professionals. This information can then be used to ask a student to leave the university.

A recent American College Counseling Association survey found 44 percent of students who visit college counseling centers have severe psychological disorders, up from 16 percent a decade ago. One in four students is on psychiatric medication, compared to 17 percent in 2000.

But dealing with college students’ mental health issues and their legal rights is a touchy subject for campus administrators.

“It’s not illegal to be a college student with mental health issues,” Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council for Education, an umbrella group for higher education, told the AP. “There are plenty of them out there. It’s very difficult to determine which ones merit being isolated from the college community.”

However, the university will often employ an “all-or-nothing clause” which requires the student to show they are not a danger to the campus community and are receiving treatment. A notice will be sent to the student requiring him or her to take certain on-campus actions which may include a hearing. Failure to respond to the notice is grounds for an interim suspension.

In fact, a complaint alone is enough to temporarily suspend a student if “the alleged conduct is such that, if true, may pose a threat of harm to the university community or property.”

However, there is not much more that Waple indicated the university could do if the student chooses to leave. He said the concern that such a student may go out and harm others is always in the back of his mind.

“It is always a concern for any university,” Waple said. “One of the challenges that many universities face is the lack of resources to handle students, especially those with mental health issues. Most universities, including NKU, are not staffed appropriately to provide long-term mental health care, nor are they equipped to handle severe mental health issues.”

Which kinds of behavior should cause alarm to students and be referred to the committee for evaluation?

According to Waple, if a student is posing a threat to his or her own safety or the safety of others, or becomes physically or verbally abusive, University Police should be contacted immediately and a report should be submitted to the Dean of Students. Police should also be contacted if physical threats are made, a weapon is visible or the student “appears to be unstable.”

But students should trust their instincts, according to Waple. Worried students should not be afraid to mention small issues to the Dean of Students’ office, even if they are unsure whether the concern is valid.

“It doesn’t have to be a crisis concern,” Waple said, saying that those concerns may help his office help that student perform better academically or socially and better enjoy his or her NKU experience.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Story by Jesse Call