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In Shooting’s Wake, Harvard Tweaks Policies

By Ying Wang, Crimson Staff Writer

Colleges nationwide have reconsidered their policies for dealing with potentially dangerous students after April’s rampage student shooting at Virginia Tech.

At Harvard, administrators are examining its emergency response plans, according to Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71. The College is investigating a system that would allow urgent text messages to be sent directly to students’ cell phones, he says, which may be in place as soon as this fall. At Virginia Tech, an e-mail warning of the first shootings did not reach many students in time.

While previous violent incidents at Harvard have also spurred administrators to amend specific deficiencies in the University’s broad crises management plans and tactics, University officials admit that it is difficult to identify truly troubled students due to privacy considerations.

CATALYZING CHANGE

In May 1995, a murder-suicide in Dunster House at the end of exam period shook the Harvard community.

Sinedu Tadesse ’96 killed her roommate Trang Phuong Ho ’96 by stabbing Ho multiple times before hanging herself in the bathroom of their suite. Tadesse also injured Ho’s visiting friend, who was sleeping in her room at the time, but the friend survived.

The incident was the most violent student-perpetrated crime on campus in over 30 years.

In the wake of the incident, College administrators worked to increase awareness of the mental health resources offered by the University and to reexamine their response plan in the wake of emergencies. However, there were no amendments made to the College’s tutor or counseling networks.

“I thought it was the Dunster murder-suicide that really opened a lot of eyes around here in the 90s as far as logistical, on-the-ground things,” University spokesman Joe Wrinn told The Crimson this April. “There was kind of a switch then that pulled [the University] to begin to organize it more.”

In response to the suicide of a first-year Medical School student in 2000, the Student Health Coordinating Board—an entity established just one year prior to implement the recommendations of a mental health report issued by the Provost’s office—organized a committee to draft a Crisis Response Manual. The manual, last updated in 2005, provides information on how to prepare for, respond to, and deal with the repercussions of crises including student injury or death.

While Harvard’s efforts in response to these situations and Virginia Tech have focused on improving crisis response tactics, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton Katherine S. Newman says that universities like Harvard are very unlikely places to experience rampage shootings such as the one in Blacksburg. Her research on school violence has found that most of the reported instances of school shootings have occurred in “highly conformist” and isolated rural areas where there are few alternatives for students who feel isolated from the primary social groups. Because of Harvard’s “cosmopolitan” setting, the possibility for violence is much less, she says.

ALLURE OF THE ‘ANTI-HERO’

Even more important than responding to a specific campus crime is working to prevent it altogether—something Newman says is entirely possible given the wealth of warning signs that many shooters exhibit.

Newman’s case studies also showed that, historically, school shootings are rarely spontaneous explosions but usually planned acts. Many shooters let off signals to get noticed, but are actually ambivalent to carrying out the deed. “Their real purpose is to gain attention and change the way the rest of the world and their peers define them and categorize them,” Newman says. “Once they’ve laid the groundwork, they end up feeling like they’ve backed themselves into a corner...and the fear of failing one more time pushes themselves from ambivalence into action.”

The problem in these situations, she says, is why all the warning signs, which were given off fairly intensely by the shooter, did not catalyze any action in responsible adult parties.

Because intercepting potentially volatile students is key, the House system can provide an important network to detect warning signs.

According to Adams House Resident Tutor Elizabeth E. Blair, tutors are trained in how to interview students, taught specific techniques to assess mental health, and instructed to refer students to professional resources offered by the University.

According to Blair, who used to help operate Harvard’s graduate student mental health hotline, tutors often have a background working with students in residential settings or in counseling.

However, she emphasizes that the tutor’s role is to watch for irregular behavior and communicate with residential deans about potential issues—not to play shrink.

“It’s important that we get students plugged into the resources they need instead of being their therapist or taking on a counseling role,” Blair says.

According to Gross, students who appear to be dangerous to themselves or to others are taken out of residence. Administrators can ask these students to take time off or force them into an involuntary leave of absence.

“Since I have so many good people in the House system, we can sometimes find people before harm is done,” Gross says.

A ‘SENSITIVE COMMUNITY’

Even before a student comes to the attention of House administrators, admissions officers will have already reviewed the student’s available records, including criminal or disciplinary reports, according to Director of Undergraduate Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’71-’73.

“We would be very reluctant to admit a student whom we considered dangerous. We would not admit a student who we knew was dangerous,” McGrath Lewis says.

While the admissions office has no special process for evaluating students who have criminal records or other “particular characteristics,” she adds that, very few, if any, students with criminal records are admitted because competition is stiff.

“There are many appealing students who have no criminal records who we don’t have room to admit,” she says.

But information on a student’s past records may not always be easily accessible, especially to those who may have the best chance at noticing trends and intercepting students on their way to a serious mental disorder, according to Newman.

“There is virtually always some kind of trail, but because of privacy regulations and society’s second chance philosophy...we tend to shred disciplinary records,” she says.

Confidentiality requirements for students seeking mental health counseling or aid from the University Health Services are even stricter, according to Director of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling Paul Barreira. Without a student’s permission, very little can be communicated.

“There are way more students who receive counseling, who the school doesn’t know about,” Barreira says.

The University’s mental health and wellness systems are not established for the purpose of stopping a violent crime, he says, but rather to create an environment where students can watch out for their peers and feel comfortable expressing their issues.

“The whole fabric of what’s being built is all aimed at having a more informed, sensitive community that feels more capable of caring for one another,” Barreira says.

—Staff writer Ying Wang can be reached at yingwang@fas.harvard.edu.

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