Balancing privacy, safety and equality

By Chelsea Fiddyment

One year ago today, the Virginia Tech shootings shocked the country. In the aftermath, troubling questions have arisen for campuses nationwide: How can we keep students safe? How can we alert them to dangerous situations? Perhaps most pressingly, two connected inquiries have emerged: How can we identify potentially high-risk individuals and how can we help them while protecting others? These queries and their possible solutions impact each and every one of us and will affect the privacy rights of students for years to come.

Seung-Hui Cho’s psychological state up to that day has since become a heated topic. Investigations of his habits and interactions with other people prior to his fatally violent outburst have revealed deeply unsettling “indicators” (hindsight, after all, is 20/20) of his capability for dangerous, destructive action (“loner” behavior and disturbing submissions for class assignments, among other things).

That’s certainly not to say that Cho’s pre-existing issues weren’t aggravated by the callous behaviors of others throughout his life. News accounts have also cited that the 23-year-old had often been subjected to the ridicule of others for his extremely introverted behavior and manner of speech, but the blame for the incident has generally remained fixed on his personal problems.

Thus, the public’s greater concern following the shootings was the fact that these signs of Cho’s mental turmoil were flagged by faculty, administration and medical professionals, but his university career was allowed to continue.

But what could the school have done? Respectfully force him to withdraw? Even if a person as hostile as Cho had been required to quit the university or been placed into the care of a mental health facility, nothing could have absolutely eliminated anyone’s concern that he might act out. He met with therapists before and even spent time in an institution with apparently little positive result.

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    With this in mind, we begin to tread a fine line between safety and personal rights. The definition of a “safety threat” in university policy (FERPA, specifically) is purposefully vague to allow for the widest possible application. Because of this, the records of anyone living with a psychological condition (or not, for that matter) could potentially be subjected to examination by administrators, faculty, or staff who consider any previous behavioral incident “threatening.” In the name of safety, we risk a witch hunt – looking for threat factors where none exist, judging students completely based on prior deeds.

    While counseling was not something that seemed to help Cho, it has been a positive course of treatment for many others struggling with mental and emotional issues. Does a student’s previous suicide attempt or anger management issue make them a target for administrative intervention then, even if it is something successfully relegated to their past through professional help? Doesn’t someone dealing with psychological troubles deserve equal access to higher education?

    In order to seemingly provide a safer learning environment for everyone, we run the risk of alienating students by discriminating against medical conditions that should remain private. To give a university the broad jurisdiction to assess whether someone is “a threat to themselves and others,” we submit anyone with “deviant” or eccentric behavioral patterns to scrutiny and even prejudice. We have simply reinforced the privilege of yet another group of people: those of us perceived to have a clean bill of mental health.

    Yes, it’s true that Cho acted in ways that could have communicated his potential for violence. But if we attempt to develop blanket rules based on mental conditions in order to pinpoint students who could, in theory only, commit similar deeds, we violate both their right to privacy and right to a university education.

    We as students must beware the well-meaning guise of safety in this circumstance. Even if we sacrifice our right to personal privacy and equal access to education, it does not solidify any entity’s ability to identify a person who will absolutely commit an act as devastating as that of Cho. It is crucial that we take all outside factors into account when discussing instances like his, and that we understand that in many cases, these other variables can make all the difference in a person’s course of action. Most importantly, it is students who must continue to make clear our right to equality – of privacy, and of educational access- to better assist university administrations in their endeavors to create safer campuses for all.

    Chelsea is a junior in English and music and cannot believe it’s already been a year.