Every college in America would be well advised to extract that pledge from incoming freshmen, under a new interpretation of the Americans With Disabilities Act issued by the Obama administration.
After the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, many colleges amended their policies to make clear they could force students to withdraw if they considered them homicidal or suicidal.
But a change in Federal law now says that taking such actions is discrimination, particularly if the student is only a direct threat to himself.
However, making that distinction is difficult. And now, university administrators are confused about what they can and cannot do with students who are a direct threat to themselves or others.
The "change in federal law" is an opinion, issued in March, by the Justice Department that asking a student who poses a mere danger of suicide to leave campus violates the ADA, while asking a student who poses a danger of homicide remains permissible. The opinion isn't actually a change in federal law; it's simply highly influential to federal courts called on to interpret the law. It also permits the Department of Education to deny federal funds to colleges deemed in violation of the law, it permits the Justice Department to sue on behalf of suicidal students wrongfully expelled out of fear they might be homicidal, and it can be cited by private attorneys filing ADA lawsuits on behalf of those students.
Query: A male student approaches the Dean, distraught that his girlfriend has left him, raving that he has a gun, and he's willing to use it. The Dean, after counseling the student to seek help, may expel our hypothetical student (for the safety of his fellow students and college employees) if the student makes which of these statements?
A. I've got a gun. I'm going to shoot that bitch!
B. I've got a gun. I'm going to shoot myself!
C. I've got a gun. I'm going to, I don't know what I'm going to do, but, ARRRRRRGH!!!!, the orbital mind control lasers! They command me to kill!
The answer is, only A. Answers B and C expose the school to the threat of suit under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Or a wrongful death suit, by the estates of former students and employees.
It's up to the schools to decide. Or to Congress to rein in the Justice Department by amending the law, which will never happen until the next Virginia Tech rolls around.
And then it won't happen either.
Think I'm wrong? Consider the curious case of Wendell Williamson, who murdered two people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, way back in the days before Virginia Tech. Williamson and I were fellow students at the same law school. I didn't know Williamson, but I know a lot of people who did. One of them, a former roommate, recalled when I called him to ask what the HELL was going on in Chapel Hill that day, "Oh yeah, that was the guy who yelled at beer."
Meaning that Williamson would utter vague but dangerous sounding threats, to his beer, at the Henderson Street Bar and Grill, which in those days was the law school hangout.
Williamson was counseled by a dean I also knew, a man of the highest integrity and the utmost concern for his students, yet Williamson slipped through the cracks and went on a homicidal rampage.
Williamson is safely interned, today, at the North Carolina equivalent of the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
But all that happened four years before Columbine, and twelve years before Virginia Tech. Colleges and universities today are on heightened guard against internal threats I have no doubt that, yesterday, a student who presented the apparent threat that Wendell Williamson presented would be asked to seek professional help but would also be asked to take a semester or two off from his studies.
Today I'm not so sure.
Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White
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