The terrible slayings in Tucson, Arizona have opened many important debates. Of special interest to me is the discussion over whether Pima Community College could have done more to help or deter Jared Loughner. Arizona has a strong mental health system and laws that allow for reporting of troubled individuals. Yet Pima CC did not take advantage of that.
It is important to know and appreciate that colleges across the country devote extraordinary resources to their student’s mental health. While this may be more difficult in a non-residential setting like Pima, higher education institutions recognize the moral and medical imperative to provide such services. Pima is accountable for whatever care they provided–or failed to provide–Loughner during his time as a student.
But he was not a student at the time of the shooting. Loughner was expelled from Pima in the fall of 2010, for violations of the code of conduct. We now know those outbursts were caused by his mental illness–a common cause for academic distress and failure. And rather than address this problem, they got rid of him. This adds to the case that Pima could have done a better job.
But me make two points to explain their behavior. First, Pima officials likely focused their attention, appropriately, on the safety and comfort of their students, faculty and staff. If one student needed to go to further that mission, so be it.
And second–and this is critical–once expelled, he was out of sight, out of mind. Pima probably forgot about him, when they could have alerted mental health officials, and handed the problem to them. But it is easy to lose track of students who are not enrolled and easy to think they are not your responsibility. Colleges face enough challenges with the people they have. Worrying about the ones they don’t is beyond their capacity.
But this tragedy is reason for pause, to reevaluate such thinking.