I Pledge That In The Event My Urges To Go On A Shooting Rampage Become Irresistible, I Will Seek Help From A Professional Counselor, Or Turn The Gun On Myself, Should The Demons So Command. X _______ (Sign Here).

Every college in America would be well advised to extract that pledge from incoming freshmen, under a new interpretation of the Americans With Disabilities Act issued by the Obama administration.

After the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, many colleges amended their policies to make clear they could force students to withdraw if they considered them homicidal or suicidal.

But a change in Federal law now says that taking such actions is discrimination, particularly if the student is only a direct threat to himself.

However, making that distinction is difficult. And now, university administrators are confused about what they can and cannot do with students who are a direct threat to themselves or others.

The "change in federal law" is an opinion, issued in March, by the Justice Department that asking a student who poses a mere danger of suicide to leave campus violates the ADA, while asking a student who poses a danger of homicide remains permissible.  The opinion isn't actually a change in federal law; it's simply highly influential to federal courts called on to interpret the law.  It also permits the Department of Education to deny federal funds to colleges deemed in violation of the law, it permits the Justice Department to sue on behalf of suicidal students wrongfully expelled out of fear they might be homicidal, and it can be cited by private attorneys filing ADA lawsuits on behalf of those students.

Query:  A male student approaches the Dean, distraught that his girlfriend has left him, raving that he has a gun, and he's willing to use it.  The Dean, after counseling the student to seek help, may expel our hypothetical student (for the safety of his fellow students and college employees) if the student makes which of these statements?

A. I've got a gun.  I'm going to shoot that bitch!

B. I've got a gun. I'm going to shoot myself!

C. I've got a gun. I'm going to, I don't know what I'm going to do, but, ARRRRRRGH!!!!, the orbital mind control lasers! They command me to kill!

The answer is, only A.  Answers B and C expose the school to the threat of suit under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Or a wrongful death suit, by the estates of former students and employees.

It's up to the schools to decide.  Or to Congress to rein in the Justice Department by amending the law, which will never happen until the next Virginia Tech  rolls around.

And then it won't happen either.

Think I'm wrong?  Consider the curious case of Wendell Williamson, who murdered two people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, way back in the days before Virginia Tech.  Williamson and I were fellow students at the same law school.  I didn't know Williamson, but I know a lot of people who did.  One of them, a former roommate, recalled when I called him to ask what the HELL was going on in Chapel Hill that day, "Oh yeah, that was the guy who yelled at beer."

Meaning that Williamson would utter vague but dangerous sounding threats, to his beer, at the Henderson Street Bar and Grill, which in those days was the law school hangout.

Williamson was counseled by a dean I also knew, a man of the highest integrity and the utmost concern for his students, yet Williamson slipped through the cracks and went on a homicidal rampage.

Williamson is safely interned, today, at the North Carolina equivalent of the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

But all that happened four years before Columbine, and twelve years before Virginia Tech.  Colleges and universities today are on heightened guard against internal threats   I have no doubt that, yesterday, a student who presented the apparent threat that Wendell Williamson presented would be asked to seek professional help but would also be asked to take a semester or two off from his studies.

Today I'm not so sure.

Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White


  1. says

    This entire situation becomes even more alarming when one realizes that suicide is a merely a subset of homicide. A suicidal individual is, by definition, a homicidal individual. To be capable of suicide is to be capable of homicide in most instances. In addition, the psychological "last round problem" presented to the suicidal individual has some not-so-great consequences for relations (former or current), intervening parties, bystanders or just the co-ed sleeping next door in the dorm behind two layers of drywall manufactured in a Chinese facility with liberal attitudes about quality control.

    To the extent that suicide is a last grasp at control, attempts at intervention tend to reinforce feelings of helplessness and a lack of control. That can be "not good" when attempted by members of the less-than-familiar academic-administrative demographic.

    "Morality," to be crude, is subject to a bit of a gravitational space-time distortion as someone approaches the suicide event-horizon. Several organized religions advertise extremely unpleasant consequences for committing suicide. Adding murder to the list of offenses isn't much of a disincentive to the highly religious. But, religious or not, the sense of finality, hopelessness and despair that often accompanies serious suicidal urges makes the probability of resorting to a homicide-of-convenience (or several) several times more likely in someone not otherwise disposed to that sort of act.

    Of course, this is a simplistic description in the abstract. Practitioners of self-administered euthanasia undertaken for quality of life reasons are probably not major contributors to this dynamic, but in the context of students at an institution of higher education, a population probably physically healthy and between 20-30 years of age, the head-in-the-sand attitude this regulatory scheme precipitates is a serious invitation for trouble.

    The larger issue, perhaps, is the extent to which anyone should be comfortable with universities and colleges making ANY of these sorts of mental-health or lifestyle enforcing calls.

    I am reminded of an encounter a former classmate of mine had at an ivy with a huge endowment-I mention this only to point out that the institution certainly had the resources to retain "the best" medical professionals for its campus health services if it so wished. She went to campus health complaining of general depression and stress due to exams, mostly, I think, because she just wanted someone to talk to… just like the campus health posters advised, as it happens.

    She was prescribed the name brand version of an SSRI within the first 4 minutes of her assembly-line-inspired visit. Noting that the notepad on the practitioner's desk and the pen she had been asked to sign some forms with both bore the label of the Pharma firm producing said SSRI she gently asked what, if any, relationship existed between the practitioner and the firm. After an uncomfortable pause the practitioner started in with comments like: "I'm getting concerned that you might be prone to self-harm, or that you might wish to harm others." Wisely, my paranoid side opines, she stood up and left without another word.

    I don't pretend to know that my third-hand example is representative, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that it is. Campus health services are so seriously and incurably conflicted and bent that relying on them to police this sort of thing, particularly given the strangle-hold grip administration and administrative departments have on the average university in this day and age, is simply dangerous. Add in the widespread rule of political correctness and one wonders if colleges and universities should be permitted to field police with actual law enforcement powers either-the evidence here is pretty decisive I think, but that's another story. Meanwhile, campus disciplinary bodies largely resemble a social science experiment replicating soviet show-trial courts gone wrong.

    Campus shootings and/or other violence are going to happen. [Insert 2nd amendment / gun-free-zone comment here]. Unfortunately, the campus pendulum has swung so far into the realm of manic and even hysterical efforts to afford students prophylactic protection against any and all assaults on the senses, sensibilities, prejudices, beliefs, lusts, feelings, bodies and minds that the larger effect is to perpetuate a generation of mid-thirty something children who feel entitled to everything and are yet able to endure none of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

    I weep for the future. Sort of.

  2. ZK says

    I'm having a hard time being upset about this. Maybe I'm not sure that expelling a student who might have a bad case of crazy is especially likely to decrease the chances of an incident.

    Or maybe I'm just happy that this opinion isn't another gutting of due process a la OCR's letter about sexual harassment cases.

  3. ShelbyC says

    Doesn't fire decent amount of cases where students are deemed a threat because somebody doesn't like their speech?

  4. Lex says

    To be fair, in your hypothetical example, the Dean in question would be well within his rights to have the suicidal student hauled off to a hospital for evaluation. He simply couldn't expel the student after that.

    Suicidal people are almost never homicidal. To conflate the two mind-states shows a poor grasp of the mental illnesses involved.

  5. says

    College faculty do not have the right to involuntarily commit students Lex, in any state of which I'm aware.

    I'm sure that some would like to have that power.

  6. says

    I worry a lot about schools bringing down the hammer on students with emotional problems, which are extremely common among teenagers adjusting to adult life. I remember when a dean at MIT said she would work on cutting down the number of suicides by trying to admit more stable freshmen. (Those are my words, not hers. I'm sure she would object to my characterization. At a school like MIT, emotional problems are even more common.)

    The last thing a disturbed person needs is the thought that they'll get expelled for coming forward with problems.

  7. says

    Also, early voting ends in a few days in North Carolina. If you've got stuff to say on Amendment One you better get to it.

  8. says

    "Heightened guard", Patrick? Uh, well, at the campus where I teach part-time, "heightened guard" means that the emergency alert texts and emails to an incident on campus are only six hours late, instead of 12 hours.

  9. AlphaCentauri says

    If a student tells a school employee that he has a gun and may hurt someone, that employee should be trained how to handle the situation in their locality. It's not like it's a far-fetched scenario.

    In my locality, one can call the mental health mobile unit to come evaluate the threatening person. If they feel he is a danger to himself or others, he can be transported to a hospital with a crisis unit (an emergency room for psychiatric problems). If further evaluation by two physicians confirms that risk, he can be committed involuntarily (if he declines to sign himself in) for a limited time (72 hours, I think). Then there must be a court hearing regarding longer periods of commitment.

    The point is that university administrators aren't expected to distinguish homicidal vs. suicidal individuals. They are expected to know how to handle emergencies in a way that keeps all students safe and conforms to the law. They can then set criteria for the student's return to school that make reasonable accommodations for his mental health problem, such as limiting his course load and requiring ongong mental health care, exercising their own academic expertise while deferring to a psychiatric professional's mental health expertise.

  10. ShelbyC says

    I'm not sure what good expelling a homocidal student does anyway. Won't he just kill people somewhere else?

  11. Ariel says

    "This entire situation becomes even more alarming when one realizes that suicide is a merely a subset of homicide. A suicidal individual is, by definition, a homicidal individual. To be capable of suicide is to be capable of homicide in most instances."

    And that gives a whole new meaning to stupid. The overwhelming number of suicides involve only one person. But I can see the syllogism: suicide = killing someone; homicide = killing someone; so suicide = homicide; therefore suicidal people are ready and willing to commit homicide. And obviously they do because I have this syllogism that proves it. And no this isn't a straw man, it's an obvious and logical conclusion from what you wrote.

    You really don't understand suicide. You must have religious precepts getting in the way. Nothing wrong with religious precepts, except when they make you stupid. Oh, and I really respect the last two Popes as learned men, unless you can show me they fell for you're argument.

  12. Ariel says

    And, yes I realize the nominal meaning of homicide, which is why we have a special word for killing yourself.

  13. C. S. P. Schofield says

    Some thoughts with not much stringing them together;

    1) One thing that always bothered me about Columbine and Virginia Tech was, why didn't anybody fight back? If anyone did, I never heard about it. OK, nobody else had a gun, but a fire-extinguisher swung by its hose packs a punch, and I'm sure there were other weapons to hand. Were all the victims sheep? Maybe I'm imagining myself to be a lot braver than I would be in the actual event, but I think if somebody was shooting folks randomly, I'd try to take the bastard with me.

    2) Does anybody else think that college might not be so full of stressed out young people if people with no call to the sciences or to scholarship didn't end up at college anyway?

    3) Dealing with mental illness is an art, not a science. My wife has been battling various forms of it for decades, and there are few hard and fast rules, and those than do exist should be approached with deep suspicion.

    4) People who go on shooting sprees are rare. They are probably each different. How much planning can really be done for them?

    5) The faculty and administration of the typical college has enough trouble just instructing those who want to learn. They are not likely to be suited to act as social workers or therapists. Asking them to take on those roles is likely to cause more trouble than it solves.

  14. AlphaCentauri says

    C. S. P. Schofield — I suspect people don't fight back because they've never played through that scenario in their imaginations before. All they know how to do is run or duck for cover. I don't think it's even a case where they've calculated their risk of survival if they are the one person rushing the gunman vs their risk of survival if they cower. There's no time to think, and they don't know what anyone else is thinking.

    After the 9/11 publicity about airline passengers who did fight back, we saw passengers in subsequent situations very willing to mix it up with bomb-carrying terrorists (or with drunk and disorderly people harassing the flight attendants, for that matter). Once people knew it was a possible choice of responses, they were willing to risk their own lives to save others.

  15. William says

    CSP Schofield:

    Your fourth point is the heart of the issue here. There are some similarities between spree killers, but you can't really plan for them or separate your garden variety malcontent from a spree killer unless you're willing to spend an incredible amount of money on widespread psych testing while simultaneously stepping all over the rights of students by forcing them to undergo such testing and mandating regular evaluations. The problem, here, is that we're afraid of spree killers and so we want some kind of illusion of control. Expelling students who might be mad makes for good illusion but the security it actually provides is close to nil and the actual costs to students who are likely not dangerous is substantial.

    I spent two years working as a therapist in a residential facility for the chronic mentally ill. Some of my direct patients had killed, some of the other residents were spree killers. Of our roughly two hundred residents all had been involuntarily committed multiple times, virtually all had been arrested at some point in their lives, about half had been deemed incompetent to stand trial, something in the neighborhood of a quarter had spent time in a maximum security psych facility run by the Department of Corrections. These were the kind of people who were prime candidates for the myth of the dangerous madman, and yet we'd not had a more serious incident than a fist fight in years. Hell, we only had one security guard on duty per shift and one CNA/orderly per eight or ten patients (depending on the floor). You can't really predict with a high degree of accuracy who is going to go from garden variety mad to spree killer.

    That said, involuntary commitment is a powerful tool. If a school official is really worried you're a 911 call away from having 72 hours to investigate and line up your ducks. Most colleges have counseling centers run by licensed psychologists who can sign the papers. The problem is that most colleges don't train their employees well enough to recognize warning signs and know when to call the center.

  16. C. S. P. Schofield says


    Interesting points; I had not thought of it from that angle before. I had happily noticed that stories about airline passengers being non-passive, and concluded that the next bunch of yahoos who tried to take over a plane would end up stuffed in the overhead luggage compartments, in somewhat used condition. Let's hope that spirit spreads to mass shootings, and the next whack-job who goes on such a spree gets dented in the dome with a folding chair.

  17. Laura K says

    CSP: I thought your comment was interesting because I often find myself wondering what I would have done during a violent attack. Yes, sure, I picture myself throwing something, grabbing the nearest heavy objetc to hand, etc. Conversely I also remember something my mom's veterans (she is a VA counselor for PTSD patients from WWII on) passed along; that they believe nobody knows how they react in actual combat before they've actually been there. And, in my case, I recall that I'm a dumpy uncoordinated person, physically.

    I hope neither of us ever have to find out in a practical setting. Having said that I am a big fan of your folding chair idea…

  18. says

    ""Oh yeah, that was the guy who yelled at beer."

    That must've looked good under the yearbook photo…

  19. says

    I still don't understand what expelling a student who is in mental anguish is supposed to do to help society.

    It doesn't make them less of a threat. It doesn't solve the problem. And it certainly doesn't help them, even if it seems to superficially solve the problem.

  20. markm says

    ShelbyC & Crissa: Expelling the student doesn't even protect the college – and ZK anticipated all of us:

    ZK • May 1, 2012 @4:57 pm
    "Maybe I'm not sure that expelling a student who might have a bad case of crazy is especially likely to decrease the chances of an incident."

    Colleges are not gated communities. There is no magic perimeter that keeps expelled students from returning to the campus. If the student actually was a risk for a shooting spree, expelling him greatly increases the risk, and does nothing to protect the college from it. (Unless you consider giving him a motivation to shoot the dean first an improvement.)

    Not that I've ever seen a gated community – including the Air Force base where I served – where a lone gunman could not have shot his way through the gate, or someone slightly more capable of planning could not have gone over or through an unguarded fence.

  21. Patrick says

    As CSP Schofield points out, a large part of the problem is that there are no good ways of determining who is suicidal, who is homicidal, and who is merely unhappy. Fewer than 2% of those identified as suicidal by current psych screening tests actually go on to commit suicide, and more people screened and tagged as 'low-risk' complete suicide than those ID'd as 'high-risk'. I don't know the numbers for assessing homicidal intent, but I'd imagine they're similar. Mental health just hasn't advanced far enough that the professionals can tell what you're thinking, let alone some college Dean in Batavia, NY.


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