Could more have been done?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

IT IS HARD to read the reports of Pima Community College officials detailing their encounters with Jared L. Loughner in Arizona without thinking how their caution in dealing with this disturbed young man was shaped by the awful lessons of Virginia Tech. It is equally difficult not to wonder if they could, and should, have done more. We say that not to blame but in the hope that just as the Virginia Tech shootings spurred needed actions at campuses across the country so will the tragedy in Tucson result in improved ways to deal with troubled students.

College officials released confidential reports that document the increasing concern with which they came to view Mr. Loughner, accused in the Jan. 8 shooting of 19 people, six of whom died. The 22-year-old was the subject of five complaints over eight months in 2010. Using words like "creepy," "very hostile" and "suspicious," teachers and fellow students told police they were frightened by his behavior. Campus police responded promptly with a series of escalating actions, from warnings by police to repeated meetings with counselors and administrators to, finally, his suspension in September. Mr. Loughner allowed school officials to share information with his parents, and it appears that his mother was present for two meetings; campus police spoke to his father when they delivered the suspension letter to his home.

In suspending Mr. Loughner, the college told him he could not return without a mental health evaluation certifying he didn't pose a danger; it's a common procedure used in higher education to encourage people to get help. But - here's where the second-guessing begins - officials did not take steps to make that happen. It doesn't appear that Mr. Loughner sought or received treatment on his own. Should the college have initiated an involuntary mental evaluation, a process easier in Arizona than many states? Did it do enough to engage the parents, who professed in a statement, "We don't understand why this happened"?

We don't have easy answers to these questions. As strange as Mr. Loughner's actions seemed and as worried as others were, he had broken no laws, he was oriented in time and place, and he had no history of violence. Officials did not see an imminent threat or danger, and, as such, it's questionable whether his condition would have met the criteria for involuntary treatment. Keep in mind that three months lapsed between his suspension and the shootings at the grocery store; psychiatrists say that it is nearly impossible to predict if someone is going to become violent.

The same month that Mr. Loughner was suspended, the college revamped its procedures for dealing with troubled students, establishing a team that includes an outside clinical psychologist to assess and assist in cases. It's hard to say if that would have prevented the awful events with which Mr. Loughner is charged, but it's one of the questions that Pima - and college officials everywhere - should be asking.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company