Arizona shootings prompt rethinking about security at area colleges

Faculty and staff at Southwestern Community College will take part in a daylong session this week on how to identify and deal with troubled students.

The program has been in the works since last fall, but the Arizona shootings have added new urgency to officials’ need to be proactive when it comes to campus security, said Phil Weast, SCC dean of student affairs.

The shooter in Arizona, police say, was a former community college student who had been expelled from the school for bizarre behavior. Officials at Pima Community College, where Jared Loughner was a student, had told the 22-year-old and his parents that he could not return to classes without completing a mental-health evaluation.

Arizona law, unlike in most states, probably allowed school officials to force Loughner into mental-health treatment. Arizona permits anyone to register concerns about someone else’s mental health with local or regional health authorities. These health authorities, in turn, are required to follow-up on such complaints.

Much of the security now in place at SCC, Haywood Community College and Western Carolina University was in reaction to an earlier massacre: The April 16, 2007, shooting deaths of 32 people at Virginia Tech by a student, Seung-Hui Cho.

“We’ve been concerned about being prepared for these types of things since Virginia Tech,” Weast said.

Rose Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, said the college created “a very comprehensive” management plan that would kick-in automatically in the event of an emergency. This plan was developed with the help of local emergency management officers after the Virginia Tech shootings.

WCU has not made any changes as a direct result of the Arizona shootings, spokesman Bill Studenc said. The university uses a “case management” approach to identify and reach out to students having issues, he said, before a situation progresses to violence.

Among other intervention efforts, Student Affairs at WCU sponsors an “early alert” email service so that those on campus can alert authorities to concerns.

Studies show more students are arriving on campus with mental health issues, according to the Associated Press, which cited a recent American College Counseling Association survey finding 44 percent of students who visit college counseling centers have severe psychological disorders, up from 16 percent a decade ago. One in four students is on psychiatric medication, compared to 17 percent in 2000.

In related news, the North Carolina Community College Board unanimously voted last week not to except potential students who pose a significant health or safety risk. Local colleges will determine exactly who, and why, warrants a denial of admission. The UNC system already allows universities and colleges to bar admission.

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