What Should Schools Do with Troubled Students?

04/17/2007 07:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What did Virginia Tech do to protect its students? We'll be looking into the university's behavior as well as the gunman's in the coming weeks.

23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui had exhibited violent, aberrant behavior but his thoughts at the time of the attacks will never be known with certainty.

After the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the responsibility is on schools to teach students the warning signs that a student could endanger oneself or other students.

Many colleges across the country have chosen not to deal with a troubled student. Instead of encouraging these kids to get counseling or medication, these kids are getting thrown out of school.

George Washington University student Jordan Nott was depressed and sought medical treatment at a nearby hospital after his friend had committed suicide. While there, he got a letter from a GWU administrator saying Nott's "endangering behavior" violated the code of student conduct. He faced suspension or expulsion and was barred from campus.

Jordan Nott's case has received much attention in the academic world, but few have reviewed their policies.

A columnist for the Boston University paper researched the BU policies and found no clause protecting suicidal or mental ill students from discrimination and asks the most pertinent question, "Can a student be asked to leave housing because of depression?" The university's answer? The student cannot be asked to leave because they are depressed, but "a specific behavior may constitute grounds for dismissal."

The word "behavior" is at the very heart of this discussion and will determine the future of thousands of college students who face depression.

95,000 students on 117 campuses across this country recently filled out the American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment. Sixteen percent of the students reported that on at least five occasions in the previous year, they had "felt so depressed it was difficult to function." More than 9 percent had seriously considered suicide, and one in every 100 had attempted suicide in the previous year.

American students and their universities are facing a critical health crisis.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death of young people. Five thousand kids between 14 and 25 take their lives each year. The signs of a behavioral problem are sometimes apparent. Depression can stem from the loss of a loved one, a change in one's surroundings, a job loss or a breakup with a girlfriend. But acquiring a gun and threatening lives is a warning signs of criminal activity. There is a big distinction.

At Ferrum College in Virginia, a student had made explicit threats before committing suicide. A judge ruled that the college had a duty to prevent the suicide if the risk is readily foreseeable.
Professor Gary Pavela of the University of Maryland says, "College administrators are looking for guidance ... some have decided that the safest thing to do is to get rid of these kids, if someone talks about suicide, or looks depressed." Federal laws do allow universities to remove students who are a threat.

Georgetown, the University of Florida, and Kent State have all posted their student guidelines on the web, warning of dismissal or suspension for the illicit use of drugs or alcohol.
But most universities have not set firm guidelines determining what is dangerous behavior. Unless a student threatens another student, a university finds itself in the crosshairs.

Just last month, a bill passed in Virginia, which prevents schools from punishing or expelling students "solely for seeking mental-health treatment for suicidal thoughts or behaviors, or attempting to suicide".

It is time for universities to have an open, honest discussion with its students, in online chartrooms, classrooms and dormitories. The stigma of being mentally ill or depressed often stops a student from seeing medical treatment or counseling. If universities continue to kick students out of school because they are depressed, there won't be many kids left in school.