In Tragedy, Diagnosis Not as Important as Improving Prevention and Response
> 4/20/2007 9:55:35 AM

We have come to the end of a long and painful week; perhaps the most painful week ever for those effected by the tragic events in Blacksburg, VA. By all accounts, the campus at Virginia Tech has begun to heal and move together toward placing their loss into a narrative of remembrance and growth.

Outside, people across the country all want to know one thing: Why? What happened was a tragedy, that much is clear, but there is no point now in rushing to judge and diagnose what was obviously a sick individual. Despite pressure from media sources hungry for content and answers, The New York Times reports that most doctors and therapists have shied from pronouncing judgment. Others are taking another approach. It was three years ago today that one of the foremost experts on the Columbine massacre explained how hasty conclusions and media coverage can lead to a poor and even a dangerous understanding on the part of the public.

Cho Seung-Hui had a psychotic break and did something that many consider unthinkable. If we're going to ask questions now, the appropriate one to ask isn't why, but how. How was he able to slip through the cracks and how might we stop the same from happening again? A nice piece from Slate today examines the tightrope act that prevention can sometimes seem:

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.

A tragedy like that which happened at Virginia Tech can serve as a launching point for productive conversations about how future problems can be involved, but as Slate points out, it's important to balance respect and compassion for mental illness with concerns about safety. In the grand scheme of higher education incidents of mass homicide are so rare that it is sometimes difficult to strategize preventions without becoming overly restrictive, but the facts that have begun to emerge from Blacksburg can provide a roadmap for possible areas of improvement.

It has come to light that Cho was, to many, a known quantity. Officials from the university even went so far as to involuntarily commit him. Now Virginia Tech is being made to defend their decision to allow him to return, although that criticism is in many ways unfair as those at the school were working under the system that was in place. What is somewhat disconcerting, and has now become the subject of an internal investigation, is the seeming obliviousness in the face of mounting evidence from several folks at the university who had raised concerns about Cho's conduct.

As the Slate piece points out, some universities have constructed comprehensive, forward-thinking response systems to students that they view as potential problems. The University of Illinois, a large public institution not all that unlike VaTech, is held up as a strong example:

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.

By coordinating the many facets of campus life to identify and address concerns, schools can improve their chances of preventing not only homicides, but suicides, drug overdoses and other negative outcomes that are often foreshadowed by a student's behavior. The key is communication and strong mental health services, something that has been revealed to be a problem nationwide.

It is important also to remember that while preventing tragedy is of the utmost importance, we also must not tread on the freedoms of adult students or fundamentally alter the college experience. In another NYT opinion piece, former FBI critical incident response specialist Christopher Whitcomb, explains how it is impossible to ever prevent every Columbine or Virginia Tech shooting, but that proper training and planning can also help mediate damages. While it may seem a bleak attitude, it is a realistic one. Cho was a sick individual, and he is the only person that can be blamed for this horrific event. In truth, even a vastly improved mental health network at every university might miss the next Cho. It is important now, though, that we do everything in our power to prevent similar events, while at the same time doing what is necessary to prepare for the unthinkable.

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