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