After Tucson, CAPS stands by system; Form allows students to report ‘gut feelings’

Counseling and Psychological Services in Eickhoff Hall employs four full-time clinicians. (Tom O’Dell / Photo Editor)

With the advantage of retrospect, crimes can be unraveled, criminals explained and tragedies lamented for the passed opportunity to predict and prevent.

Following the shootings in Tucson, Ariz. on Jan. 8, which killed six people and injured eight others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, according to The Associated Press, news organizations scrutinized the life of the suspected shooter for signs. Accounts from former classmates surfaced — he’d laughed at inappropriate times, had outbursts in class, made a video called “Genocide School’ and was considered an extreme nihilist — the signs were seemingly there.

Yet Jared Lee Loughner’s actions were not predicted, which has drawn attention to the response of his former school, Pima Community College, and, on a grander scale, every school’s role in identifying potentially dangerous students.

According to Marc Celentana, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the College has its own system in place for detecting students in distress. Anyone, inside or outside the campus community, can fill out a Student of Concern Reporting Form, available on the College’s website. “Signs of Distress,” also provided on the website, include physical, emotional/behavioral and classroom behavior, like weight gain or loss, unwarranted anger and inappropriate laughter, respectively.

The form, Celentana said, is designed as a “low threshold” option for reporting what may just be a “gut feeling.” As many members of the campus community aren’t experts at identifying mental illness or substance abuse, Celentana said the form is intended to yield precautionary “false positives.”

Magda Manetas, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and acting dean of students, evaluates the “Student of Concern” forms and investigates the veracity of statements. Manetas then will consult the Behavioral Assessment and Response Team (BART) — a group of eight campus offices that convenes bi-weekly to discuss potential “students of concern” — to determine further courses of action, Celentana said.

According to the College’s website, BART was established in July 2008 with the passage of the Involuntary Withdrawal for Health or Safety Reasons Policy.

The criteria for “involuntary withdrawal,” according to the College’s website, requires that the student must serve as a “significant harm to the health or safety of the student or others” or represent an “unreasonable impediment to lawful educational process or activity for apparent medical or mental health reason of the student.” Celentana said that students may be involuntarily removed from campus on an interim basis, when a student presents an immediate threat.

“It (the removal) serves to protect the student in distress, the community potentially at risk, while at the same time balancing, the civil rights of the student,” he said.

Following immediate removal, the circumstances of the withdrawal are evaluated further to determine if the student’s removal will be permanent. Off-campus psychiatric evaluation and the determination of the validity of threat that initiated the interim withdrawal, factor into the assessment, Celentana said.

In the last two years, Celentana said BART reviewed approximately 75 to 80 Student of Concern forms. Of this number, only five met the criteria for interim involuntary withdrawal.

With only four full-time clinicians — which amounts to about one clinician for every 1,500 students at the College — Celentana said that CAPS isn’t equipped to follow-up with every student struggling with mental illness issues that has sought help. Students are treated on an “outpatient” basis.

“We try to do it as protecting the privacy of the students … not becoming so intrusive like we’re Big Brother … The intention is to privately apply assistance where appropriate and take swift action … otherwise we become caretakers,” he said. “The College is not a psychiatric facility. It’s an academic institution, so as an academic institution we’re trying to foster a level of independence.”

According to Manetas, the shootings in Tucson won’t likely inspire change in the College’s current policy regarding students in distress.

“What those terrible events and the ensuing national conversation have shown us is that (the College) was very wise to establish the policy and BART — a policy and assessment/response body similar to that established by many colleges and universities in the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech,” Manetas said in an e-mail.

As to whether tragedy can be predicted by monitoring the behavior of those around you, Celentana said such situations aren’t that simple, but it’s always better to be cautious.

“I think there’s a knee-jerk reaction to create simplicity out of complexity … but I think the reality is, it’s multifaceted,” he said. “… Always be alert and aware. Don’t disregard your instinct, your intuition.”

Katie Brenzel can be reached at brenzel2@tcnj.edu.