Encounters with Sociopathic Students

In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, many of us have been scratching our heads about how things could escalate so horribly without more people noticing or doing something about the sociopath in their midst.

Peggy Noonan asks in today's OpinionJournal, "Where are the grown-ups?":

There seems to me a sort of broad national diminution of common sense in our country that we don't notice in the day-to-day but that become obvious after a story like this. Common sense says a person like Cho Seung-hui, who was obviously dangerous and unstable, should have been separated from the college population. Common sense says someone should have stepped in like an adult, like a person in authority, and taken him away. It is only common sense that if a person like Cho leaves a self-aggrandizing, self-celebrating, self-pitying video diary of himself to be played by the mass media, the mass media should not play it and not publicize it, not make it famous. Common sense says that won't help.

And all those big cops, scores of them, hundreds, with the latest, heaviest, most sophisticated gear, all the weapons and helmets and safety vests and belts. It looked like the brute force of the state coming up against uncontrollable human will.

But it also looked muscle bound. And the schools themselves more and more look muscle bound, weighed down with laws and legal assumptions and strange prohibitions.

The school officials I saw, especially the head of the campus psychological services, seemed to me endearing losers. But endearing is too strong. I mean "not obviously and vividly offensive." The school officials who gave all the highly competent, almost smooth and practiced news conferences seemed to me like white, bearded people who were educated in softness. Cho was "troubled"; he clearly had "issues"; it would have been good if someone had "reached out"; it's too bad America doesn't have better "support services." They don't use direct, clear words, because if they're blunt, they're implicated.

The literally white-bearded academic who was head of the campus counseling center was on Paula Zahn Wednesday night suggesting the utter incompetence of officials to stop a man who had stalked two women, set a fire in his room, written morbid and violent plays and poems, been expelled from one class, and been declared by a judge to be "mentally ill" was due to the lack of a government "safety net." In a news conference, he decried inadequate "funding for mental health services in the United States." Way to take responsibility. Way to show the kids how to dodge.

Way to teach administrators how to dodge. This blog entry at Rate Your Students shows how hamstrung professors are within their universities when faced with a sociopath in class. Here's an excerpt:

In Spring of 2004, our fiction writing professor had this student in her class. She is a five foot woman in her 50s. He is a body builder who can bench approximately 350 pounds, a known steroid abuser who had written an essay for his composition class about the benefits of steroids, contending that the media had falsely propagated claims that steroids are harmful. The student terrified her. He was disruptive and hostile in class, using obscenities in every sentence. He turned in a story in which a man inserts a gun into his girlfriend's vagina, which excites her sexually. My colleague was so intimidated that she had security guards posted after class at one point. She kicked him out of the class, only to be told by the department head that she had to re-instate him. I was sitting in the next room when he met with the department head, and I heard him say, of my colleague, "She's proof that they'll give anyone a Ph.D. She's an idiot."

The next semester, the student enrolled in my poetry writing class. His first poem contained the lines "She's begging for a condom that never existed / but it isn't rape, is it?" His second poem contained a racial slur. He used the class Blackboard page to engage in obscenity-laced flame wars with classmates. Several classmates complained that they felt intimidated by him.

At the end of the semester, he wanted to include a poem called "Fat Stripper" in the class book, and perform it at the class's public reading. He printed it across a photo of a 300 pound African-American woman in a g-string, pole-dancing. The poem compared the woman to "the last piece of rotisserie chicken that nobody wants." He read the poem at the class reading, after I asked him not to, and our creative nonfiction writing professor could be heard saying how distasteful he thought the poem was. The next day, outside the building where we work, the student yelled at the creative nonfiction professor, whom he had never met, "Hey [professor's name]! You piece of s---. You got a f------ problem with me?" The creative nonfiction professor called the police, and the student was escorted off campus.

I failed the student because he hadn't done any of the assigned reading for the class and because he had been tardy fifteen times. My reward for this was (a) relentless badgering from his parents, demanding that I change the grade; and (b) I had to have the student in class again two years later. In fact, in addition to re-taking the class with me, he enrolled in another of my class, the required capstone class for all creative writing majors. At this point, he had it in for me. He had posted vicious things about me all over the internet. He posted the following response to another student's creative work, in a non class-affiliated online forum: "Hey! You suck! ________ is perhaps the worst short story I have ever read, and your fanfiction is no better. Please quit school. You will never succeed as a writer, and your major in English is truly ironic (meaning you are an imbecile). Or, better yet, just die. Yes, die please. I think that would suit us all."

I was afraid for my own life. I met with the university attorney, the dean of students, the department head, the dean of my college, and the assistant dean of my college. They said there was nothing that I could do, besides flunking him again, in the absence of direct threats, e.g. "I'm going to do X to you." The dean of students actually told me, "You may be in danger of physical harm here," but didn't offer any help. The bottom line is that they were more afraid of lawsuits from the student's deranged parents than of what might happen to their faculty and their other students.

When I was an admissions officer, I dealt with some folks who were clearly disturbed. I remember one guy in particular -- a student at another division of the university who was applying to the law school. When I became sufficiently spooked by his behavior and told him I was calling security, I received a very huffy phone call the next day from the university's Office of Civil Rights. (I can't even find that department on the university website anymore, but it definitely existed at the time.)  That administrator spouted a bunch of PC nonsense at me, and I told her flat out that if I continued to feel threatened in any way, I would call security, and the police, as many times as I needed to, and that if she wanted to read me the riot act each time, that would be a small price to pay.

And those are just the internal roadblocks. There are various federal privacy laws that prohibit university professors and administrators from acting preemptively, and I have no doubt all those regulations will be getting a closer look now. From the Washington Post:

A school official said that under federal privacy laws, he could not discuss what was in Cho's student records, even though he is dead. I respect the need for privacy, but under the circumstances, that seems ludicrous.

See Overlawyered.com for a great discussion of those privacy laws.