COLUMBIA — In the wake of recent college campus shootings — such as the one at Virginia Tech that left 33 people dead and, more recently, the one at Northern Illinois University that claimed six lives — many have questioned whether there were warning signs that had been missed. But even if there are warning signs, student confidentiality rules can make it difficult to flag troubled individuals.
Alexander von Schönborn, associate professor of philosophy at MU, said he had a student who was performing poorly on tests. When von Schönborn confronted him, he learned the student was staying at the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center, a psychiatric facility located near University Hospital.
“I asked him why he didn’t come to my office for things he didn’t understand,” von Schönborn said. “He said, ‘I only get three hours of release time from Mid-Mo, and I’m in your class for those hours.’ I called the Student Health Center and asked, ‘Am I at risk? Are my students at risk?’ They would not say.”
Von Schönborn said that sometimes professors have to put their trust in groups like the At Risk association, which was formed several months ago and aims to assess whether a student is in danger of hurting themselves or others.
“Sometimes there are bad sides with confidentiality,” he said. “You have too little information and you have to trust those people who have the information.”
Susan Even, the director of the MU Student Health Center, said that health care providers are not allowed to release health information to faculty or anyone who calls about a student. Even said the health center would contact police if a patient made a direct threat toward another person, or if they need police to check on a person’s well-being.
“One of the reasons people are willing to confide things that are personal or maybe embarrassing is because they feel they are safe,” Even said.
Identifying individuals who pose a risk to themselves or others depends mainly on people speaking up, and, often, it’s not easy to recognize when someone needs help.
If a student breaks an ankle or gets sick with the flu, it’s easy to see something is wrong and how to fix it. Because mental illness doesn’t always have physical symptoms, it’s harder for friends and family to know when an individual needs help.
The Division of Student Affairs created the At Risk task force, which is designed to facilitate the exchange of information on students about whom other students, staff or faculty are concerned.
Information about students who seem at risk is transferred to a select number of professionals from different services on campus, including the MU Police Department, the Counseling Center, the Student Health Center, student staff and academic advisors, said Christian Basi, a spokesman from the MU News Bureau.
This group meets to evaluate concerns from students or faculty and assess what kind of help the student needs.
Keeping the task force small assures that all concerns about a student are directed to the same group of professionals, and that these professionals can keep a closer watch on students.
“We want to keep everything in the same group,” Basi said. “That way if a faculty member has concern about a student or a colleague they can go to the same group.”
Rosean Bishop, interim director of the MU Counseling Center, said that students who are identified as “at risk” are encouraged to go to the Counseling Center for consultation.
“Residential Life is fabulous about it — they will actually walk a student over,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey it’s not scary, I’ll walk you over.’”
In a situation where a student does not want to get help or refuses service, a professional can take further action.
Bishop said psychologists are required under state law to report if someone needs to be hospitalized because they are at substantial risk to hurt themselves or others. Bishop said they must identify a specific person they want to harm and be capable and have access to a method.
“If a student reaches this threshold we would take the necessary steps to have them hospitalized,” she said. “If someone says, ‘I am going to shoot my psychology teacher,’ that’s clear: they’ve identified a person and a method, shooting.
“Then we would go further and ask if they have access to a gun.”
Although peer advisors in the residential halls have been trained on general signs of mental illness, they must report concern about a student to their supervisors who pass it along to the At Risk association. The group then decides if the situation requires immediate action, or if the student needs a professional to go talk to them the next day.
“We’re careful; it’s not students talking about other students,” Basi said. “This group is cognizant of privacy and will help any staff member.”
Faculty members are also involved with the At Risk program.
On a large campus, there is concern that, with thousands of students going in and out of classes, faculty could be too busy or see too many students to identify a problem. Bishop said that the MU faculty she’s dealt with have been very receptive to learning how they can help.
“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of faculty and staff about this,” Bishop said. “They are very concerned. And when they do see something, they do intervene.”
Von Schönborn said taking care of students is a part of a teacher’s role.
“For one thing, their welfare and my welfare are not easily separated,” von Schönborn said.
The gunman who killed five people and then turned the gun on himself at Northern Illinois University last Friday left no note or motive for the killings, but authorities said he had recently stopped taking a medication. Before he walked into a classroom and opened fire, the shooter at Virginia Tech had been identified by teachers as troubled and possibly dangerous. In both instances, erratic behavior was noted by students or faculty leading up to the shootings.