Reexamine Involuntary Treatment Laws

Washingtonpost.com asked prominent think tanks which public policies failed and what can be improved in the wake of the the Virginia Tech shootings.

Resident Scholar Sally Satel
Resident Scholar
Sally Satel, M.D.
"I contacted the police, contacted counseling, student affairs, the college to try to sound the alarm, and they felt that their hands were tied legally for various reasons . . . as you probably know until someone actually threatens to do something, it can be incredibly difficult to make something happen. . . ." --Lucinda Roy, English Dept.

We don't know all the facts but the tragedy should prompt a serious reexamination of Virginia's involuntary treatment laws. According to state statute a person must be "an imminent danger to himself or others." But because Cho Seung Hui wasn't "imminently" violent, authorities' "hands were tied." How high must the bar be? Desperately troubled, Cho barely spoke or made eye contact; he started a dorm room fire and stalked women, according to the Chicago Tribune. He posted "im going to kill people at vtech," on a school Web forum, school officials said. Students shared "serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter" and Professor Roy, so concerned about him and his impact on classmates, tutored him privately. The 23 year old was the prime age for new-onset schizophrenia.

Granted, it is hard to predict violence but, taken together, these signs should have been sufficient to compel Cho to undergo intensive diagnostic assessment in a secure setting.

The Virginia "imminency" standard for commitment is too narrow. In Arkansas a lower threshold of "likely to cause harm to self or others" can trigger involuntary assessment, acute containment, and care. In Hawaii it includes "[individual] is obviously ill," and in Washington state it is "likelihood of serious harm." The Virginia legislature should consider revising its involuntary treatment law.

Sally Satel, M.D., is a resident scholar at AEI.

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