Yesterday, we faulted officials at Virginia Tech for failing to act on the growing menace posed by Cho Seung-Hui. As reported in various media accounts, Cho was accused of stalking female students in 2005, and interviewed by campus police on at least three occasions. During that same year, a Virginia judge declared him a public threat, and ordered Cho confined to a mental hospital. More recently, Cho’s grotesque writings and threatening demeanor so alarmed an English professor that she demanded he be removed from her class.
Despite those apparent warning signs, administrators and public safety officials at Tech proved unable to connect the dots; Mr. Cho remained in school and eventually hatched the plan for Monday’s murderous rampage that killed 32 other students and faculty members, before he took his own life. In many respects, Cho’s continued presence in Blacksburg was a failure of leadership.
In fairness, we did observe that suspending or expelling Cho from the university would have been difficult. But we didn’t realize just how complex that process was until reading an informative article from Tamar Lewin in today’s edition of The New York Times. Lewin’s reporting reveals a tangled web of anti-discrimination and privacy laws that severely limit how universities can deal with mentally ill students. In fact, existing regulations can place institutions of higher learning in a legal double-bind:
On the one hand, they may be liable if they fail to prevent a suicide or murder. After the death in 2000 of Elizabeth H. Shin, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had written several suicide notes and used the university counseling service before setting herself on fire, the Massachusetts Superior Court allowed her parents, who had not been told of her deterioration, to sue administrators for $27.7 million. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
On the other hand, universities may be held liable if they do take action to remove a potentially suicidal student. In August, the City University of New York agreed to pay $65,000 to a student who sued after being barred from her dormitory room at Hunter College because she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
Also last year, George Washington University reached a confidential settlement in a case charging that it had violated antidiscrimination laws by suspending Jordan Nott, a student who had sought hospitalization for depression.
And, making matters worse, universities are prohibited from screening students with potentially serious mental illnesses (that would violate the Americans With Disabilities Act); releasing their medical records (barred under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), and even disclosing medical conditions to family members without the student’s permission (prohibited by a 1974 education rights and privacy law).
Such legal requirements, coupled with institutional policies and the pervasive “tolerance” attitude on college campuses, have created a procedural nightmare for university officials. That doesn’t totally excuse the leadership failures at Virginia Tech; Cho’s history of stalking, followed by the professor’s request to remove him from class, should have triggered alarm bells within the English Department and convened a wider inquiry into whether he posed a legitimate safety threat. Instead, the department elected to muddle through; Cho got a tutor and remained in school. Additionally, there’s no evidence that administrators and campus police bothered to follow through on complaints about Mr. Cho, despite their knowledge of his troubled past.
But the labyrinth depicted by the Times does cast the situation in a slightly different light. Professors, administrators and security officials still have an obligation to ensure student safety, no matter how tough it may be. It’s regrettable that various statutes (no matter how well-intentioned) have made that effort even more difficult. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, it may be time to amend some of those laws.