The Tucson Shootings And Mental Health Procedures

Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter in Tucson's massacre this weekend, had multiple run-ins at his local community college before he was asked to leave. Colleges and universities have revamped their procedures since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. But those changes did not stop Loughner from buying a gun. In fact, Arizona has a relatively flexible law for forcing the mentally ill to seek treatment. But there's no evidence anyone sought to have Loughner evaluated, despite his bizarre behavior in class.

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Late today, we heard from the family of the accused shooter, Jared Loughner, for the first time. They released a statement which included this: there are no words that can possibly express how we feel. We wish that there were, so we could make you feel better. We don't understand why this happened. It may not make any difference, but we wish we could change the heinous events of Saturday. We care very deeply about the victims and their families. We are so very sorry for their loss. That from the Loughner family.

The Tucson shootings, once again, have mental health professionals asking themselves, what could we have done? Last year, Jared Loughner's unusual behavior raised concerns at the local community college.

But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, it is unclear whether different mental health rules could've prevented this tragedy.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The Virginia Tech shootings prompted a major reexamination of college mental health procedures. The shooter, Seuing-Hui Cho, was referred for a psychological evaluation by the school and a judge ordered him to receive outpatient treatment, though he never did.

Brian Van Brunt, president of the American College Counseling Association, says that since Virginia Tech, schools across the country have put resources in place to deal with this kind of situation.

Mr. BRIAN VAN BRUNT (President, American College Counseling Association): What we see is behavioral intervention teams and threat teams or teams that meet on almost every college campus, both community and residential schools weekly, to discuss at-risk students and to develop action plans to work with the student.

ABRAMSON: Jared Loughner attended Pima Community College from 2005 through 2010. The school has refused to talk to reporters since the shootings, but released a statement saying that Loughner had five contacts with campus police last year because of disruptive behavior in class and in the library.

After the school found a disturbing YouTube video by Loughner, he was suspended. The school told Loughner and his parents that he could return if he had a mental health exam showing he's not a threat to himself or others. Brian Van Brunt says this is standard operating procedure these days for many colleges. But he says that the school's responsibility stops here.

Mr. VAN BRUNT: For most of these cases, if a student were to act up in the classroom and then was asked to complete an evaluation and they chose not to, there's no more authority they have to have that completed beyond having the student removed from school.

ABRAMSON: Under Arizona law, the school could have gone further. After Virginia Tech, Virginia changed its procedures to make sure that people under a court order do get treatment. Other states have altered their regulations, often in response to other violent acts. Arizona already has a pretty flexible law for forcing people to seek treatment.

Suzanne Hodges with the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona says the law there allows a court to intervene early and require an evaluation.

Ms. SUZANNE HODGES (Chief Compliance Officer): You don't have to be to the point where you just cannot take care of yourself, but you also don't have to be imminently dangerous to yourself or to others.

ABRAMSON: Taking this step is fairly common. Hodges says at any given time, about 800 people in Pima County are under court order to get treatment. That's out of a population of a million people. Public health officials say Jared Loughner was not getting publicly financed treatment. We don't know whether he received treatment privately.

Suzanne Hodges says if someone had reported Loughner to a court, there would've been one important consequence.

Ms. HODGES: If you are actually court ordered for treatment, then you can no longer be an owner of a firearm.

ABRAMSON: Advocates for the mentally ill say this shooting comes at a time when funds for treatment have been cut back substantially.

Michael Fitzpatrick of the National Alliance on Mental Illness says that after Virginia Tech, then Virginia governor, Tim Kaine, boosted mental health funding in his state.

Mr. MICHAEL FITZPATRICK (Executive Director, National Alliance on Mental Illness): The unfortunate outcome, though, in the years since is that money's been largely cut because of budget deficits, the recession.

ABRAMSON: Fitzpatrick and others are concerned the reaction to this shooting will to be to blame people who need treatment and further isolate them. They say people with psychological problems are, in fact, more likely to be the victims of violent crime and need to be encouraged to seek help.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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