A Year after Virginia Tech, Sharper Focus on Troubled Students

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April 16. The date of Virginia Tech's tragedy resonates for campus leaders the way Sept. 11 does for the nation.

The fatal shootings of 33 students and faculty there a year ago have put colleges and universities on high alert for potentially troubled students. On many campuses, that means more support is available. But the incident has also caused a reaction in some places that mental-health professionals view with concern. When students with serious mental issues are unfairly barred from campus, they say, it doesn't improve campus safety and could drive the problems underground.

"We are seeing the campuses really trying to understand who needs help ... so they don't fall through the cracks," says Kevin Kruger, a spokesman for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, based in Washington. But he says a growing number of faculty have been calling administrators about disruptive students, saying things like, "I want them out of there."

One student took an overdose of pills and then threw them up and sought counseling. The next day, the school placed her on leave.

"I felt I was being punished for my depression," she wrote in a letter to Karen Bower, senior staff attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington. "Instead of trying to learn more about me, they kicked me out so someone else could deal with me."

The Bazelon Center sued George Washington University in 2005 on behalf of a student placed on leave after seeking emergency psychiatric care for depression. The suit was settled. As a result of the suit, Virginia legislated that public universities could not penalize or expel students solely for suicide attempts or treatment for suicidal thoughts.

If struggling students are automatically placed on leave, others won't want to come forward about their own or a friend's troubles, "and that breakdown of communication will be very harmful," says Gary Pavela, who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park, and has written about college mental-health issues.

Of course, colleges do have to decide where to draw the line if a student's problem is beyond their capacity to help or if their behavior violates conduct codes. A student's severe troubles can at times put a burden on roommates and classmates, even if it's not violent.

"Going to school is not a right; it's a privilege," says Carolyn Reinach Wolf, director of Campus Behavioral Health Risk Consultants and a lawyer in New York State. "There comes a point in time where a student just can't remain on campus."

Still, people with mental illness shouldn't be pegged as violent - they are more often victims of crime than perpetrators, Ms. Wolf says.

Students with mental illnesses have a right to ask for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. …