Do more to prevent mentally ill from harming students

Note: The following editorial was published April 11 by the Boston University Daily Free Press, distributed through U-WIRE

Boston University Daily Free Press editorial board

It reflects a sad state of affairs when it takes a national tragedy for a state to reform its mental illness statutes, but sometimes officials need a wakeup call to act.

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine signed a series of laws recently aimed at better treating the commonwealth’s mentally ill – an altruistic reform, no doubt, and one that should embarrass and motivate the remaining states to reform their appallingly poor mental health safety nets. Still, despite all the safety conferences and alert systems universities held after the Virginia Tech massacre, which happened a year ago, colleges have yet to do all that is necessary to protect the mentally ill from harming themselves and others.

One reform the new laws cannot produce is the way institutions – specifically universities – interpret them. Universities cannot treat the mentally ill under stricter laws if college officials cannot identify them. According to an August 2007 review panel report on the tragedy, Virginia Tech officials failed to stop the shooter because they did not connect the dots. Students and at least one professor notified administration officials of the shooter’s risk, but these officials feared keeping too many tabs on him because of privacy concerns.

This lack of communication was due more to university reluctance to track students than actual laws forbidding it.

Of course, even the best mental health monitoring cannot prevent troubled minds from inflicting serious harm with a deadly weapon. It is absurd that national gun laws allow any American to buy firearms online without background checks.

The Supreme Court will rule soon on the momentously important question whether the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms applies to individuals or just groups. If the Court rules in favor of gun advocates, however, a crucial loophole will remain – no U.S. citizen should be able to purchase guns online to avoid his state’s gun laws.