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Community colleges seek ways to deal with unstable students

Santa Monica College is among those working with an online training program to learn how to help those in trouble.

January 16, 2011|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Georgia Lorenz, Santa Monica College dean of academic affairs, works with the online training program.
Georgia Lorenz, Santa Monica College dean of academic affairs, works with… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

He wears stained and dirty clothing and his grades are sliding. His mid-term essay contains disturbing passages and his behavior in class is causing increasing concern.

The student is showing clear signs of psychological distress, and the question for instructors and staff at Santa Monica College is how to approach him. Should they try to talk to him, refer him to counseling or call campus police?

This student exists only in the virtual world, part of an online training program that is helping educators at Santa Monica and other colleges around the country learn the best ways to reach out to troubled and possibly dangerous students.

The shooting rampage in Tucson has again focused attention on how colleges treat such students and whether the institutions have the staff, training and resources to spot the potential for outbursts of violence.

The increasingly bizarre behavior of Jared L. Loughner, the suspect in the Arizona shootings, resulted in his suspension months before the shootings, from a college in Tucson. The school, Pima Community College, does not have a mental health center. Its policy is to refer students with mental health issues to licensed professionals off-campus, a college official said.

Loughner was a student at Pima from 2005 until last fall, when he was suspended for violating campus conduct codes, including causing disruptions in the classroom and library. He was told he could not return without clearance from a mental health professional stating that he posed no danger, according to the college.

Traditionally open to all comers, community colleges face particular challenges dealing with unstable or mentally ill students, officials said.

The colleges serve many students on the economic margins; a large number of military veterans, including those suffering from physical and emotional trauma; and former felons seeking a fresh start. Because they are mainly commuter campuses, there may also be relatively few opportunities for students and faculty to build relationships that could help detect troubling changes in behavior.

The sour economy has increased demand for community colleges even as many have cut back on services, including counseling. At the same time, educators at colleges across the country report seeing increasing numbers of students exhibiting signs of mental illness and other problems.

"We consider access fundamental to our mission, but it gets to a point where one has to reconsider if that is realistic," said Norma Kent, vice president for communications of the American Assn. of Community Colleges.

In California, educators are pursuing legislation that would allow college districts to deny enrollment to a student expelled from another district for violent acts. Under current law, the districts may disclose information about student conduct but are not required to do so. And there is no central repository for information about student expulsions and suspensions.

More than four-year institutions, community colleges reflect their surroundings, for better or worse.

"We're definitely feeling more like a pressure cooker," Georgia Lorenz, Santa Monica College's dean of academic affairs, said after last week's training session.

"We may have 70 students trying to crash a class already full with 45 students. There's a lot more pressure on students and faculty, and our counseling center is slammed all the time. All this can exacerbate bad behaviors."

Despite budget cutbacks, the college, which has 34,000 students, has been able to boost its mental health services in recent years. In the wake of the 2007 campus shootings at Virginia Tech, Santa Monica was among a number of educational institutions across the country to create a crisis prevention team. Last year, the college added a post-doctoral intern to a psychological staff that also includes two full-time licensed psychologists and two pre-doctoral interns. Last spring, it launched the simulated training program.

So far, more than 50 faculty and staff have used the program, and the college is seeking funding to make it available to more employees.

In December, the school developed an online referral form for professors concerned about students' behavior, and within a week there were six referrals, said Brenda Benson, the school's dean of counseling and retention.

One case involved a student who was upset after being dismissed from a program; others were from instructors concerned about bizarre writings by students but afraid to confront them. Some students need counseling about relationships or schoolwork. But others, Benson said, have autism, schizophrenia or drug addiction, conditions that require referrals to outside mental health specialists.

Faculty members are thrust into the delicate position of intervening with troubled students. "They are the ones with a relationship with the student," Benson said. "I've had instructors say this is not what I signed up for, but this is now a part of what all faculty have to do."

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