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2011 February 7 - 12:00 am

POV: For Colleges, Weighing Safety Against Freedom a Difficult Balancing Act

Paul Bradley
Editor, CCW

There has been no shortage of finger-pointing about who is to blame for the horrifying shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead and another 13 wounded, including the gravely injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Was it the rise of viscous political invective? The easy accessibility of guns? A mental health system in which too many people fall through the cracks and don’t get the help they need? Was it the tortured inner workings of a diseased mind?

With the benefit of hindsight, many fingers have been pointed at Pima Community College, where accused killer Jared Lee Loughner was a student for five years before being suspended following a series of troubling, even bizarre encounters with college police. Some observers have faulted the college for not following up with Loughner or his parents after the suspension to ensure he posed no threat outside campus.

Pima, critics contend, failed to heed the lessons of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, when student Cho Seung-Hui fatally shot 32 students and teachers before killing himself. Cho had previously been diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder, but privacy rules at the time prohibited the college from knowing his medical history.

The criticisms of Pima embody an understandable desire to comprehend the incomprehensible, to make sense of the senseless.

But they also are off the mark — misunderstanding both the reality of life on a community college campus and the limits of what colleges can do in dealing with the troubling behavior of students.

The barbs have also added insult to injury. The father of one of the dead, of Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ director of community outreach, was the son of a college employee.

Pima followed protocols put into place after the Virginia Teach massacre. Like numerous other schools, Pima overhauled its security systems and student codes of conduct, creating a threat assessment team which meets regularly to discuss potentially dangerous students.

After incidents of Loughner’s disturbing behavior came to light, campus police confronted him five times. Loughner took part in meetings with college administrators and counselors. Police spoke to his family — Loughner lived with his parents — and advised the family that Loughner could return to school after his suspension only if he was cleared to do so by a mental health counselor. Of course, that never happened.

How to keep students safe is seldom clear-cut. When should seemingly inappropriate outbursts be protected as free speech? What constitutes dangerous behavior as opposed to merely odd? When is a suspension warranted? When should a student be forced into mental health treatment? How does a college balance the well-being of a student against the well-being of the institution?

Colleges struggle to find the right balance. Last year, for example, the Community College of Baltimore County suspended student Charles Whittingon, a veteran of the Iraq War. He had published an essay entitled “War is a Drug” in the Oct. 26 edition of the student newspaper. The essay was about the thrill Whittingon got from killing enemy soldiers. He wrote that killing “is something that I do not just want but something I really need so I can feel like myself.”

The former infantryman was barred from campus until he obtained a psychological evaluation. Said college spokesman Hope Davis at the time: “We all believe in freedom of speech, but we have to really be cautious in this post- Virginia Tech world.”

Whittington voluntarily left the college, but his suspension provoked impassioned letters of support for the college and equally passionate criticism.

Colleges trying to create a safe environment, while at the same time keeping their campuses open and welcoming places, also confront complex laws, growing numbers of students who need mental health services and limited resources for providing them.

Community colleges face particular obstacles. Unlike residential four-year schools, most community college students don’t live on campus. Many are taking only a couple of courses and are sometime visitors to campus.

At Pima, 34 percent of the school’s enrollment of 70,000 students are enrolled part-time and are spread across six campuses and five educational centers. Those kinds of statistics are typical of large community colleges, and colleges find it difficult to monitor and assess students who come from all walks of life.

Even if they could, relatively few community college campuses have the money to maintain and staff mental health clinics on campus. Pima is not among them; students who need mental health services must rely on community-based agencies.

Could the college have done more? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Washington Post that he believes the college did everything it could have done.

“If I was the chancellor of that community college, I think that would have been my response,” Duncan said.

Duncan instead cited lax gun laws for leading to the tragedy.

“From what I read, they said to the family that ‘he needs some help and we won’t take him back until you get him some help.’”

“I’m not quite sure what else that community college can do.

“My question is, lots of folks have mental issues. How’d he get a gun?”

It’s YOUR TURN!  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: Should colleges work closer with community mental health agencies so students get needed services?
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