Involuntary Treatment Laws

I agree with the earlier commentators' descriptions of what quality campus mental health systems should do--namely, provide campus-wide outreach via education; facilitate rapid access to care; establish intervention mechanisms that keep track of students at risk; and coordinate with the local mental health authorities for students who need those services.

In Arizona, an interested party can petition the court for mental evaluation of a person.

But two critical points remain. First, what actions can a school take in coercing treatment when the student resists it? Second, does a school have any responsibility to the wider community when a student who is deemed to be deeply disturbed and possibly violent--deemed so by the school itself--is expelled or drops out?

Let's address these in the context of Jared Lee Loughner, the young man at the center of the Arizona shootings. By now, enough evidence exists to say that Mr. Loughner's symptoms are highly consistent with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

What actions can a school take in coercing treatment when the student resists it?

The Pima Community College clearly wanted him assessed by a mental health professional. According to The Washington Post, Mr. Loughner's algebra teacher requested that he see a counselor last summer and begged the counselor to "do something." In response, the counselor said that he/she could do nothing because the student did not bring a weapon to class, promised to be quiet and seemed harmless.

It appears, however, that Arizona's remarkably progressive involuntary treatment laws might have allowed the school to act anyway. They permit involuntary evaluation and treatment of a person who desperately needs it. According to this so-called "in need of treatment" standard, an interested party can petition the court for an order for treatment. If the court found Mr. Loughner "persistently or acutely disabled" by severe mental illness and likely to benefit from treatment--regardless of whether he had a weapon--an evaluation and subsequent care could have been imposed. (Also, the teachers and students could have sought a petition independent of what the school chose to do.)

Of course, hindsight is perfect. And most people are rightly skittish about infringing on a person's civil liberties. But given Mr. Loughner's troubling track record-the number of times the campus police were called to intervene; the pressing concerns of his teacher and of the other students in the class; and the very fact that Pima would not re-admit him without psychiatric clearance--it seems that a court petition could well have been justified. (More information on what college confidentiality law permits is still needed for a complete post-mortem).

The second question I raised earlier is perhaps the most vexing. What responsibility, if any, does one institution, Pima Community College, in this case, have to the wider community when a student deemed to be deeply disturbed and possibly violent--deemed so by the school itself--is expelled or drops out? This is the crux of a larger policy problem that goes beyond commitment laws.

Dr. Sally Satel is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: Photo by Flickr user Piero Sierra/Creative Commons

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