|Appalachian School of Law Shootings|
Fri, 18 Jan 2002
After failed law student Peter Odighizuwa allegedly stormed the Appalachian School of Law and killed the dean, a professor and a student, acquaintances said they knew all along he was troubled.
But screening college applicants for instability and removing students with serious mental health problems can be difficult, experts say.
Federal laws bar admissions officers from asking about mental illness, and clamp a shield of privacy over information about students once they’re enrolled. Add the communal setting and the culture of openness on college campuses and they are as vulnerable as any community.
“The whole range of behaviors and problems you have in small towns, you have in universities,” said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “They’re small towns.”
Unlike small towns, however, there are some extra rules.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents schools from asking about any mental illness in admissions, and requires the school to accommodate afflicted students - which they gladly do, said Barmak Nassirian, policy analyst for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
“Regrettably, there isn’t a whole lot institutions are allowed to do prior to the commission of a nefarious act,” Nassirian said. A “hunch” is not enough to keep someone out of the classroom, he said, “just because somebody is very passionate - shall we say - in their discourse.”
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act generally prevents schools from revealing student records to anyone outside the school.
This became controversial after the Sept. 11 attacks. A survey of registrars found 220 schools had been contacted by at least one agency seeking student information - 50 schools by more than one agency from a group that included the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and state and local police.
Most of the time, campuses are generally peaceful havens.
“There’s no national pattern of violence on college campuses,” said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, which represents higher education groups. “You’re dealing with isolated instances that are basically idiosyncratic and very difficult to prevent.”
But privacy protections need not be a barrier to safer campuses, said Scott Doner, public safety director at Valdosta State University in Georgia.
Odd or scary behavior should be reported to campus police, who can check it out, he said. That’s a lesson learned from the high school shootings in recent years: the shooters often talked about their plans.
“A lot of people do not want to get involved,” said Doner, president-elect of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Officers. “But I think because of what happened on Sept. 11, and going all the way back to Columbine, people are beginning to realize they can make a difference.”