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Colleges walk fine line with troubled students

The tragedy at Virginia Tech has prompted calls for more security and less privacy.

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It's an issue colleges have confronted before: the extent to which they should be expected to foresee and take responsibility for their students' actions.

The debate arises in the wake of student suicides or assaults that parents may believe could have been prevented. It pits safety against the protections of privacy and disability law – and can leave schools unsure how to act.

This week's shootings at Virginia Tech bring the issue to the forefront of schools' attention. "I think every college in the United States is going to be sitting down and saying 'what does this mean for us,' " says Peter Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law. "It will permanently alter college campuses. The public may call for more safety and less disability law, and we're going to see a quick change in the culture in terms of the response and identification of high-risk individuals." Lawsuits over the actions of Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 32 on campus Tuesday before killing himself, are virtually inevitable, experts say. But they differ sharply on how fair it is to hold the school accountable for the tragedy.

Virginia Tech had warnings dating back a year and a half about killer Cho's disturbing behavior. Those, coupled with news that several teachers had raised questions about Cho's violent writing and erratic classroom behavior, have led some to charge that the school should have acted more aggressively to prevent Cho from ever getting to the point of walking into a school dorm and, later, Norris Hall and killing so many students and faculty.

At a press conference Thursday, university officials reiterated that Cho had been seen as a threat only to himself and that federal antidiscrimination laws prohibit the university from taking actions against students after they're released from care.


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