Fearful of litigation, supportive of students' independence and often citing privacy laws, colleges for years have zealously guarded the confidentiality of their students. But the recent massacre at Virginia Tech is raising questions about what many view as an excessive culture of privacy on U.S. campuses.
Colleges often hesitate to contact outside authorities about mentally unstable students, preferring to take care of disciplinary issues quietly on their own. Students are legally considered adults at age 18, and college administrators say federal and state privacy laws generally prohibit them from sharing details about a student's health or academic record with parents or outside authorities.
The privacy laws include explicit permission to intervene in case of danger, but some say colleges are too cautious about using that exception. One of the largest college risk-management and insurance companies, United Educators, which insures 1,200 educational institutions in the United States, believes that school administrators too often err on the side of privacy. "I think there's been a hesitancy to share information in deference to student privacy probably more than the law requires," says Karen-Ann Broe, senior risk analyst at the company. She advises client schools that they may be freer to intercede than they think. "Can not going to class be a health or safety emergency?" she says. "It depends on the circumstances."
Nancy Tribbensee, general counsel for Arizona's university system, holds training sessions on the issue for Arizona's campus attorneys and registrar's office staffs to make sure they understand their options. "The law isn't black and white," she says, and "too narrow or restricted an interpretation" can lead to a failure to make perfectly legal disclosures. Often, she says, the college administrators making decisions haven't read the laws that apply.
At Virginia Tech, Cho Seung-hui's strange behavior set off enough alarm bells in 2005 that he was declared at "imminent risk" of causing harm and ordered by a judge to seek counseling. Faculty members have told reporters they complained about Cho's behavior to school authorities, but didn't know about other complaints about him from students.
Some families have complained that students exhibiting suicidal tendencies don't even attract that level of intervention. In 2003, Ferrum College in Ferrum, Va., agreed to pay an undisclosed sum and admitted some shared responsibility to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family of a student who hanged himself in his dorm room in 2000.
The lawsuit alleged the school knew that the student, Michael Frentzel, had written a note indicating he was going to harm himself and had self-inflicted bruises. The school said allegations in the suit were incorrect but declined to comment further this week.
In 2004, 18-year-old Paul Kraut jumped off a Manhattan balcony after his freshman year at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. His mother, Pam Kraut, had asked the school early in the year to have a counselor speak to him because his parents' marriage was breaking up and he had begun behaving erratically and driving recklessly. Kraut says she was told that privacy laws prevented the school from reaching out to students in distress and from informing parents about their behavior, and that they couldn't send a counselor to him -- her son would need to seek counseling on his own. She says she learned only later that he stopped attending some classes, and says after his death she overheard friends discussing how he had tried to kill himself once at school and had been taken to the hospital.
"No one could ever tell me anything," says Kraut, 57 years old, an interior designer in White Plains, N.Y. "I was always in the dark." His father, Robert Kraut, says: "The question is: What constitutes privacy versus the well-being of the child?"
Babson College officials say they have no record that Kraut tried to kill himself before leaving school and was taken to a hospital. They say that the school does not notify parents if their child is missing classes, but instead has an academic adviser reach out to the student. "For parents, the laws are very stringent," Tim Mann, the college's then-dean of student affairs, said late last year. "These are young adults." A spokesman for Babson declined to comment further this week.
In fact, the laws have big loopholes that let colleges alert parents and authorities. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or Ferpa, adopted in 1974, protects the educational records of students, which often include grades, transcripts and reports of disciplinary action and campus violations. But it allows schools to break confidentiality and notify parents or authorities in the case of a "health or safety emergency," or notify parents if there is a drug or alcohol violation and the student is under 21 years old. They can also choose to share any information with parents who claim students as dependents on their tax returns, which is common. And if a potential danger stems from behavior on campus that's not part of academic records, schools don't have to apply the privacy law at all.
State laws protect the privacy of medical records, including mental-health counseling records. But those laws allow mental-health professionals to share information with police or other authorities, or even call for forced hospitalization, if there is a risk of imminent harm.
In the case of Virginia Tech's Cho, a judge decided more than a year before the shootings that the "imminent risk" threshold for intervention was reached. But an outside mental-health facility that evaluated Cho recommended outpatient counseling rather than hospitalization. It's unclear what the school did to monitor his mental health after that, but school officials told reporters they were not responsible for doing so. The school did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The killings by Cho are prompting some universities to re-examine how they balance respect for students' privacy against campus safety. At the University of Maryland, College Park, administrator Gary Pavela has been busy drafting a memo to advise faculty members on what to do if they are worried that a student may be troubled. Over the past week, he says, many administrators have discussed creating new mental-health response teams -- faculty members, housing and security staff, counselors and deans -- to monitor problem students.
About half the colleges in the country already have such groups, which typically meet every week so each member can share details about any students or events on campus he or she is worried about. Ferpa allows such discussions among school officials with a legitimate educational interest, and counselors don't share confidential information in the sessions. The groups typically keep lists of problem students that get updated each week.
Some members of Congress want to make the Ferpa exceptions clearer to encourage college officials to take advantage. This week Republican Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, who is a psychologist and co-chair of the congressional mental-health caucus, proposed spelling out that the "health and safety" exception includes concerns of suicide, homicide or threats of physical violence. His amendment also would absolve college officials of liability if they contact parents to discuss concerns about a dependent student, as long as they consulted first with a licensed mental-health professional. "Universities can find parents when it comes time to pay the tuition or co-sign a loan," Murphy says. "Let's get them involved when their child is in danger."
Colleges say they are seeing an increasing number of students with psychiatric diagnoses such as attention-deficit and eating disorders, addiction, bipolar disorder and severe depression. The numbers may be going up partly because the stigma attached to mental illness is fading, and partly because new medications are allowing students to function better.
Student outpatient mental-health claims rose 64 percent between 2000 and 2003, according to the Chickering Group, a college health-insurance provider, which also says antidepressants are now among the most-prescribed drugs on college campuses. More than 90 percent of college counseling-center directors reported an increase in the number of students they saw who were diagnosed with severe psychological problems, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the American College Counseling Association and the University of Pittsburgh. About 40 percent of counseling-center clients had severe psychological problems, including 8 percent with disorders so serious they could not remain in school, the survey said.
One big obstacle for colleges in keeping track of troubled students: Many don't have psychologists or psychiatrists on staff. Often, they have therapists with master's degrees. Some are primarily guidance counselors without advanced training in suicide or other extreme behavior, more accustomed to discussing grades or roommates' problems. Staffers don't always know when it is legal, or even advisable, to break students' confidentiality, says Richard Kadison, chief of mental-health services at Harvard University. Some small schools don't even have counseling centers on campus. The average ratio of counseling staff members to students on U.S. campuses is about one for every 1,700, according to a soon-to-be published survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.
Privacy at colleges and universities wasn't always held in such high regard. For centuries, schools were bound by the legal doctrine of in loco parentis, which required them essentially to take on the responsibilities of parents.
But starting in the 1960s, spurred on by the free-speech and civil-rights movements, a series of court decisions began to award college students more legal rights. Michael Crabtree, a psychologist and professor of psychology at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., says that years ago he freely talked to parents about their children's class work. Now, "all you can do is have a cup of coffee -- you can't talk about anything with substance," he says. The school, like many, says it asks students to sign a waiver to allow their parents to have access to their educational records, and give professors and campus officials permission to contact their parents if they see a need.
Gerald Ross' 22-year-old son James shot himself in May 2002, just before the end of his senior year at the State University of New York at Buffalo. After that, Ross began writing members of Congress suggesting that colleges should have a system to notify parents if they notice that something is wrong. "A lot may not be a violation of the privacy law," says Ross, a lawyer who lives in Manhattan. Because he wasn't allowed to see his son's grades, Ross says he did not know that James had dropped courses, taken one class twice without passing it, and wasn't likely to graduate. "The counseling department already had a checklist of possible signs of suicide risk," he says. "Not going to class is one of them."
The school's Web site lists poor school performance as a risk factor for suicide, but a spokesman for SUNY-Buffalo says there can be other reasons for students missing classes. He says administrators call parents or authorities quickly if they feel a student is a threat to himself or others, as Ferpa's health and safety exception allows, but that no one at the university saw James display any warning signs.
In the years since Ferpa was adopted, many colleges and universities have emphasized helping students grow into independent adults, and helping parents accept this development. "I don't think students are given enough credit for knowing what is best for them and being trusted as adults," says Jessica Barker, a psychology student at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, who has battled an eating disorder.
Many college counselors believe that breaching one student's privacy, even if warranted, will scare other students away from seeking help. "These kids are over 18, and it's important when they go to the counseling center that they know that what they say is confidential," says Joanna Locke, a program director at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide and promote mental health among college students. "No student would go to the counseling center otherwise."
College officials also note it can often be hard to tell what constitutes an emergency situation. Most troubled students who are withdrawn, depressed or angry do not end up hurting themselves or others.
Colleges and universities fear being sued over not protecting students' privacy well enough, but they also have been sued for being too protective. At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Hunter College in New York, students have won settlements over being required to leave dorms or campuses after exhibiting suicidal behavior.
On the other hand, in 2002, the parents of Elizabeth Shin sued the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for millions of dollars for failing to notify them of the emotional deterioration of their daughter, a sophomore whose death in a dorm-room fire was ruled a suicide by a medical examiner. The case was settled out of court last year for an undisclosed sum.
Ann H. Franke, an attorney and president of Wise Results, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., says she advises schools to be prepared that they can face either kind of legal action. "Sometimes you have to pick your lawsuit," she says. She tells college officials if they're forced to choose, try to head off violence and risk a suit over privacy rather than one over wrongful death or injury.
Still, when Hilliary called her from school last September and, sobbing, said she thought she would be better off dead, Turnipseed immediately called the school's counseling center to see why they hadn't been returning her daughter's calls. The doctor who spoke with Turnipseed told her she couldn't discuss her daughter, but she agreed to wait by the phone so the young woman could call. Wanda Collins, director of American's counseling center, said counselors who have concerns about students encourage them to talk to their parents.
Hilliary, a 20-year-old junior, says she was relieved her mom intervened. She began seeing a therapist at school and a psychiatrist who prescribed an antidepressant; now, she says she feels much better. "I know I'm technically an adult," she says. "But I wouldn't call myself a full adult yet."