Saturday, December 29, 2007

Privacy versus student health, campus safety

Today's Wall Street Journal includes an article entitled "Bucking Privacy Concerns, Cornell Acts as Watchdog."

The Virginia Tech shootings have moved campus safety to the top of university administrators' priorities.

Is Cornell creating a safe environment, or an environment of busy-bodies? Maybe a little of both, but there's not doubt the new approach has helped some students. Here are some excerpts from the article:

For 19 years as a custodian at Cornell University, Sue Welch has been taking out the garbage and mopping the floors of residence halls. Recently, she added a new responsibility: trying to prevent student suicide.

Ms. Welch noticed during a recent semester that she was repeatedly having to clean up after a particular student's apparent bouts of nausea, and told her supervisor she feared the young woman had an eating disorder. The supervisor told the residence-hall director, who encouraged the student to go to the university health center. Counselors there arranged for her to get treatment for bulimia nervosa. Ms. Welch credits the training sessions that she and other custodians attended on how to spot students with mental-health problems....


[Cornell University's] "alert team" of administrators, campus police and counselors meets weekly to compare notes on signs of student emotional problems. People across campus, from librarians to handymen, are trained to recognize potentially dangerous behavior. And starting this year, Cornell is taking advantage of a rarely used legal exception to student-privacy rights: It is assuming students are dependents of their parents, allowing the school to inform parents of concerns without students' permission....

By 2002, the executive director of Cornell's health center, Janet Corson-Rikert, began making mental health a communitywide responsibility. The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School had shocked educators into recognizing the danger of failing to spot troubled students. Like most colleges, Cornell was starting to see more students enrolled with severe mental-health problems, as reduced stigma and improved medications allowed more of them to reach college. The counseling center was often overwhelmed with demand for appointments.

Dr. Corson-Rikert asked Dr. [Timothy] Marchell [director of mental-health initiatives] and others to build a network to train people to notice problems and give them ways to report them, while still respecting student privacy. An advisory council on mental-health strategies made up of Cornell staff, faculty and student leaders had its first meeting in early 2004, and members had a realization: In school post-mortems after tragedies, "each person knew pieces of the story but no one saw the whole picture," says Dr. Marchell. "If they had shared the information, maybe we could have intervened."

Dr. Marchell spoke with several suicide-prevention organizations, who pointed the school to a surprising model: the Air Force.

In the 1990s, the service decided to try to reduce suicides by airmen and studied each case for warning signs. They learned to look at behavior changes, discipline problems and poor performance ratings as possible indicators of depression. Four-star generals began to talk publicly about mental illness and encourage all service members to watch for warning signs. Each member of the Air Force is now given training in detecting depression and other mental disorders. The Air Force's protocol is one of few suicide-prevention programs proven effective: The average annual suicide rate dropped by a third, from 13.5 per 100,000 people to 9.9.

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