April 21, 2007 in City

College counselors say violence extremely difficult to predict

By The Spokesman-Review

College counselors are not unfamiliar with the profile.

A student who writes violent fantasies. A student angry at the whole world. A student who creepily pursues young women.

After an event like Monday’s shootings at Virginia Tech, the hindsight is perfect in the public square. People wonder why someone didn’t stop the gunman before he showed up on campus with a desire to kill.

In this case, Seung-Hui Cho had come to the attention of counselors and officials on more than one occasion – from concerns raised about his violent student writings to allegations of stalking three women to generally strange and possibly threatening behavior.

But those who deal with troubled students say it’s not so simple. It’s not uncommon for students to express anger, frustration, even violent impulses, counselors say. The vast majority of such students never harm anyone, and identifying the mass murderer as opposed to the simply troubled is not a simple matter.

“When something horrible happens, we all want to figure out if there’s something we could have done to prevent this,” said Joan Pulakos, director of counseling at the University of Idaho. “It’s very, very difficult to predict who might be a problem. … It just is impossible.”

Barbara Hammond, head of counseling services at Washington State University, agreed.

“Many students do speak violently or write violently, and it comes to our attention,” she said.

When that happens, she said, they try to get the student into counseling or other help. But “psychologists aren’t especially good at predicting future violence,” she said.

Between 7 percent and 10 percent of the student bodies at regional campuses visit their counseling center in any given academic year, and almost none of them poses any threat to others, counselors say.

Treatment is voluntary unless a counselor feels there is an imminent threat to the person or to others, in which case a university can seek to have the student committed or otherwise restricted from campus.

But the threat must be specific in order to act, counselors say. If a student makes threats toward a specific person or people, that’s one thing. But someone who’s just generally angry at others doesn’t quite fit the definition of an imminent and specific threat, and people frequently use violent language in a simply figurative way.

“Oftentimes people say in their counseling sessions, ‘I am so angry I could kill that person,’ ” said Miriam Berkman, staff psychologist and director of training for the office of counseling at EWU. “The question is, is that just talk or is there something there?”

In some cases, counselors may not be able to act within their legal restraints, but campus officials may take action if they deem a student is a threat, from limiting their access to campus to expulsion.

EWU, like other regional schools, has created teams made up of police, counselors, student life administrators and others, who meet regularly to discuss safety on campus. Such groups may determine that a student presents a concern even if they don’t meet the “imminent threat” standard, and take some action.

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