April 19, 2007

Can school shootings be prevented?

Everyone’s got an opinion about Seung-Hui Cho and how his Virginia Tech rampage could have been prevented. The university administration should have done something. The police should have done something. And where the heck were his parents?

Such acts never occur out of the clear blue sky. There are always signs. With new details emerging rapidly about Cho Seung-Hui's history, we know that Cho gave off a great many signs. And some around him noticed those signs.

At least one teacher was so disturbed that she reported him to academic authorities and to police. Police investigated his “stalking” of female students and even had him briefly hospitalized. His parents called campus administrators to voice their concerns about his mental health. Fellow students say they even wondered aloud whether Cho could be a school shooter.

The problem, in terms of violence prediction, is that many people – and especially many adolescent and young adult men – are troubled. Many are severely depressed. Many express disturbing, violent fantasies. But, fortunately, only a tiny fraction commit lethal acts against others.

In other words, hindsight is 20/20. It is far easier to realize that a young man is depressed or disturbed than to accurately predict whether he will become violent. Prior to his rampage, Cho may not have seemed all that out of the ordinary to college counselors and police.

A national study of 95,000 college students last year found that in the previous year 16% had felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function. More than 9 percent had seriously considered suicide, and one in every 100 had tried to kill themselves that year. And more and more students are seeking treatment at college counseling centers. The counseling center at Virginia Tech treats about 2,000 students a year, according to its director.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, the incoming president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors said that many of Cho’s signs are not at all unusual among college students.

At Cornell University, where he is director of counseling services, Gregory Eells said it is “fairly common” for a professor to call counseling services to ask what they should do when a student writes a disturbing essay.

“Would you hospitalize Quentin Tarantino?” Eells asked. “There are all sorts of writers who write about dark, violent themes, but most of them are not dangerous to themselves and others.

“It's always easy to look back and say the friend was concerned, a faculty member was concerned, they had a previous hospitalization…. But to make a jump and say that everyone who exhibits those signs is going to become the perpetrator of the worst shooting in American history is not a logical jump. That possibility is always there, but a million times that is not what is going to happen.”

The director of the counseling center at Virginia Tech agreed, pointing out that the types of stalking complaints made by the two women against Cho are not uncommon on college campuses.

"It is very difficult to predict when what someone perceives as stalking is stalking, and then how it might translate into violence later," Dr. Chris Flynn of the Virginia Tech counseling center told the Associated Press. "Clearly, if anyone had any warning about a violent incident, people would have stepped in and acted."

After a disaster such as this, some people will likely lobby for stricter laws. Laws reducing psychologist-patient confidentiality. Laws making involuntary hospitalization easier. But such laws would cast too wide a net. In the end, it may prove impossible to predict which troubled young man will become violent.

Instead, we might want to look for ways to reduce the alienation and rage felt by so many young men today. To improve school climates. To reduce the bullying, the ostracization, and the glorification of hypermasculinity that provide the social backdrop for school shooting rampages.

For an interesting perspective by educator ira Socol, go to: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/04/20/socol

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"After a disaster such as this, some people will likely lobby for stricter laws. Laws reducing psychologist-patient confidentiality. Laws making involuntary hospitalization easier."

You were prescient, sadly that is exactly what has happened in Virginia. Confidentiality laws which were already among the weakest in the country are now weaker and commitment which was already easy is even easier- (easy in that studies showed 84% in 1994 and 91% in '07 who were detained ended up in the hospital or in involuntary outpatient treatment.) http://hymes.wordpress.com