Psychology of Safety in the Spotlight

By Daniel Tedford

Sitting in the back of the class everyday, they dress in dark
colors, glaring at the world around them: ambiguous, reclusive,
unknown. Students wonder, “are they dangerous?”

On Thursday faculty, staff and students tried to clear the air
on some of these issues as they came together at a community
dialogue, attended by officials from Stop the Violence Center,
University Housing Services, Judicial Affairs and Asian-Pacific
Islander Center.

Trying to foresee the mind of an individual who is capable of
performing a school shooting is a troubling issue. People want
safety, prevention and security, but the process of identifying
individuals may infringe on rights, alienate students and create
stereotypes.

Despite those ideas, the role psychology now plays on a school
campus has garnered new awareness with the recent tragedy in
Blacksburg.

Sitting on the outer circle of a few rows of chairs filled with
various staff, faculty, and his peers, he taps his fingers
nervously on his leg, trying to vocalize his concerns – the mission
of the community dialogue held at the Old Stables. The student asks
questions about what can be done to prevent such horrifying
tragedies, almost pleading with campus police for answers to what
seem to be unsolvable questions.

Prevention is the buzzword at this point as many students are
concerned with how to avoid this from happening at their school.
One of those students is Gionello Tiano, a first-year psychology
student who thinks preventing such individuals from hurting others
is a battle of minds – mental warfare.

“Safety shouldn’t be such an issue,” said Tiano after the forum.
“It really should be prevented.”

The forum shed light on some of the future arrangements campus
police are making to ensure safety for students, faculty and staff
on campus, but it also pointed to the role psychology and
counseling plays in prevention.

Police are often bound by the concept of responding to a crime,
rather than arresting individuals for things they may do. Yet
psychologists and counselors are often privy to information that
may allow them to be the sentries in the barrier against dangerous
students and their actions.

Counseling and Psychological Services at Cal Poly does
non-traditional research that often goes unnoticed at the
university. They recently attempted to start research on
Asian-American mental health, something representatives said could
have been helpful in adding insight into the case of the Virginia
Tech shooter.

“It is hard to do meaningful outreach with current means,” said
Nicole Ruzek, research coordinator for CAPS and a clinical
psychologist.

When they initially applied for the grant to fund the program
they were denied. But this was before the events at Virginia Tech.
A new focus has turned to psychological programs at universities
and CAPS feels they deserve more focus as well as better
funding.

“We are at the point in terms of needs, that we need more
staff,” said David Herzog, the clinical service coordinator for
CAPS and a clinical psychologist.

Herzog acknowledged he was not speaking on behalf of the
director of the program.

Mental health is under the spotlight since it was made public
that Cho Seung-Hui was mentally unstable as noted by a Virginia
special justice who labeled Cho as being “an imminent danger” to
himself, according to a court document. Some saw this as a red flag
that could have prevented Cho from shooting and killing 32 people
and then himself at Virginia Tech Monday, April 16.

It also has been made public that professors reported him as
being a student with dangerous traits, according to CNN.

Some have pointed to this knowledge and the failure of its use
to remove Cho from the university as a lesson to be learned for
other schools.

Representatives from CAPS along with the campus police assured
everyone in attendance they would be working toward better
communication and have communicated in the past in efforts to keep
the campus safe.

Problems still arise for students who ask why Cho wasn’t sent
away and wonder if Cal Poly is doing enough to protect
students.

“It’s all about psychology,” said Tiano. “It’s more about the
minds. Once you get that, you got it down.”

Campus Police Chief Michael Guerin acknowledged there have been
times when the school has removed students who were potentially
harmful citing communication between them and CAPS as the basis for
the removal.

But police and CAPS both acknowledge that while communication is
exchanged in a timely fashion, it currently isn’t immediate.

“The key is going to be communication,” said Lt. Dan Ponder.

Protecting Cal Poly

REACTION to harmful individuals seems to be an unknown affair to
students at Cal Poly. At the forum, the question, in numerous
phrasings, was posed illustrating students concern.

Campus Police assured students by outlining possible actions
including a forcible hold for up to 72 hours referred to as “crisis
mode.” It is an order signed by the president and can be activated
as fast as 15 minutes. They noted that only a “handful” of
individuals have had this restraint put on them over the years.

CAPS spoke in terms of their capabilities such as emergency
walk-ins where they have a psychologist ready for students in dire
need. Herzog also made it clear that if a student is distressed to
the point they can’t make it into CAPS’ offices, they will go to
the student.

In terms of determining a threat, CAPS, due to its
nontraditional style, has the ability to confer with colleagues
immediately and report a threat to the authorities.

As for what is next in terms of creating more security on
campus, police cited the possibility of creating some sort of alarm
despite not having PA systems on many buildings at Cal Poly. Also,
a special number to be called by the police that would notify
action agencies in order to better reaction time is in the
works.

There are a number of items being considered to make Cal Poly
safer and administrators and police are weighing the pros and cons
of each and will decide which is most effective – probably a
combination of a number of ideas – according to campus police.

“It’s not about the money,” said Guerin. “It’s about the
technology that is best for us.”

Communities’ Role

IN TERMS of prevention and reaction people often look to
authority figures such as police and psychologists for
protection.

Yet it may be students and faculty who have the first chance to
observe persons who present dangerous qualities.

A student in need of help, trying to cope with the world around
them, wants to talk but seeing a counselor goes against their
culture. Instead they turn to a professor. After two hours of
talking the student leaves, never again returning to campus. This
was the story told by a faculty member at Cal Poly during the
dialogue.

In a separate instance in an article last week for The Poly
Post, professor Mary Sisney told the story of a student whose
psychological issues caused her to worry. This is not unheard of at
Cal Poly.

At the community dialogue a professor told a story about a
bipolar student who kept showing up outside his doors. He went to
the authorities about the student and soon the student stopped
showing up. Yet he never heard back from the authorities.

These instances raise the question of when do students, faculty
and staff involve themselves and make authorities aware of
potential danger. The action can be appropriate to preserve a safe
environment, but at the same time it can cause more distress or
distance a student who may just need help.

“We have an ethical obligation to warn others,” said Guerin.

The Stop Violence Office is working on prevention education and
has seen an increase in requests for in-class presentations. The
goal is to increase awareness and knowledge for students, staff and
faculty on campus, which may be the best answer for the fears and
frustrations that linger in their minds.

Daniel Tedford can be reached by e-mail at
editorinchief@thepolypost.com or by phone at (909) 869-3530

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