Schools struggle with dark writings

By May 20, 2008

When Steven Barber turned in a short story this semester for his creative-writing class at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, his instructor was alarmed. The 23-year-old student had produced an imagined account of someone on the edge of a violent breakdown, touching on suicide and murder.

"It had to be acted on immediately," says Christopher Scalia, the instructor. He alerted administrators, who reacted swiftly, searching Mr. Barber’s dorm room and car. Upon discovering three guns, they had him committed to a psychiatric institution for a weekend. Then they expelled him.

Yet the psychiatrists who evaluated Mr. Barber during his hospitalization determined he was no threat to himself or others. Mr. Barber says the guns were for protection from threats such as school shootings. He maintains that his story, titled "Sh—y First Drafts," was merely a fictional attempt to address school shootings such as the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech massacre, which left 33 dead, including the gunman. The story "was supposed to show how disturbed people are who do that," Mr. Barber says.

In the year before the Virginia Tech massacre, the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, wrote multiple pieces of alarming fiction that troubled teachers and classmates alike. Now, schools are trying to distinguish the dark musings of college fiction from deadly manifestos that foretell campus violence. But the schools, trying to protect their communities, don’t always know when to act. And when they do, they may infringe on the rights of those students under scrutiny.

After the shootings, the creative-writing faculty at Virginia Tech put out a guide to help instructors identify and respond to disturbing fictional work. The University of New Mexico has created a hot line to take calls from professors with worries about students, including concerns about writing that contains "credible threats of harm to self or others." And Boston University has published a brochure, "Helping Students in Distress," that advises faculty to watch for writing with themes of "hopelessness, social isolation, rage or despair," among other things.

Yet some experts worry that these measures pose legal or ethical risks. Psychologists caution that it is nearly impossible to predict future violence. Professors are being asked to do something for which they are untrained — assess a work for signs of a troubled psyche. Complicating the issue further, college students are at an age where the part of the brain that manages behavior is still developing, so they don’t always understand the consequences of their words. "It takes a lot more than one or two papers to see if someone has a psychiatric problem," says Gwen Dungy, executive director of NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

If they overreact, schools could violate students’ privacy and civil rights. Some schools, such as Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga., are finding it helpful to scrutinize students’ Facebook or MySpace pages, for example. First Amendment experts warn that this practice can violate freedom-of-speech protections.

"Right now, if a university administrator claims that someone is a threat, even if that threat is virtually unsupportable and completely unreasonable, they have carte blanche to do what they want," says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

He cites an incident last year at Valdosta State as a case in point. After T. Hayden Barnes read in the student newspaper about the school’s plan to build two multimillion-dollar parking decks, he posted fliers around campus objecting to the project for environmental reasons. Mr. Barnes, now 23, also wrote about it on his blog, voiced his concerns to several members of the school’s board of regents and asked objectors to contact the university’s president, Ronald M. Zaccari. Within a month, Mr. Barnes says, President Zaccari had met with him and told him that he had "personally embarrassed him" and that Mr. Zaccari "could not forgive him." Mr. Barnes says he apologized.

Mr. Barnes then had a letter to the editor of the student paper published and created a collage that he posted on his Facebook page. It included several pictures — of automobile exhaust, a gas mask and the university president, among other images — and the words, "Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage."

On May 7, 2007, Mr. Barnes, then a junior, found a letter from President Zaccari under his dorm-room door saying that Mr. Barnes presented "a clear and present danger" and that he had been expelled. Attached was a copy of his collage.

In order to apply for readmission, the letter said, Mr. Barnes would need to present correspondence from a psychiatrist indicating that he wasn’t a danger to himself or others, as well as documentation proving he would receive therapy during his tenure at school.

Mr. Barnes sued the university and its board of regents in January, claiming freedom-of-speech and due-process violations, among other complaints. "Political persecution under the guise of mental-health threats shouldn’t happen on our campuses," he says. Mr. Barnes appealed the expulsion. On Jan. 17, 2008, the administration sent him a one-sentence letter saying he had been reinstated. His suit is pending. Valdosta State declined to comment on the case.

What distinguishes Mr. Barber’s experience at Wise College is that the school took action over a classroom assignment for which he was expected to exercise his imagination. The problem for Mr. Scalia, the instructor, was the story’s references to the class and its assignments and to the murder of a professor called Mr. Christopher, a name identical to his own first name. Mr. Barber, a Navy veteran who served in the Iraq war, wrote of stockpiling alcohol and drugs for a binge and sleeping with the "cold and heavy steel" of a gun under his pillow. "I knew I had a choice," he wrote. "Murder or suicide. Either way, death was imminent."

Mr. Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, says he had strongly recommended that students not write in the first person and avoid depictions of excessive alcohol or drug use. He gave these instructions, he said, to prevent clichéd writing and to help them develop perspectives other than their own. Mr. Barber ignored his advice. "I went straight to the administration because the story was directed at me," says Mr. Scalia, adding he had received an email from a student expressing her own concerns about the piece.

Administrators at Wise, in Wise., Va., detained and questioned Mr. Barber on Friday, Feb. 29, the morning after he passed out copies of his draft. Campus police found three weapons in his car: a revolver and two semiautomatic weapons. Two guns were loaded. Mr. Barber says he showed them his permit to carry concealed weapons. Wise prohibits guns on campus. Mr. Barber told administrators that he wasn’t suicidal or homicidal, and that he chose the subject because "everybody cares about Virginia Tech."

"The military trusted me to guard a billion-dollar warship with an automatic machine gun," he says, "but I can’t bring a little pistol to class, and I have a permit?"

Wise College declined to comment on the specifics of Mr. Barber’s case. Gary Juhan, a university vice chancellor, says that when assessing whether a student is a danger to himself or others, administrators look at everything they know about the student, including behavior, past writings, gun ownership and judicial history. "We try to build as complete a picture as we can," he says. "You have to go quickly as distress can be carried out to the community."

When he turned in his story, Mr. Barber was on university probation for charges that included violating the school’s alcohol policy and possession of a "tonfa," a martial-arts weapon similar to a policeman’s nightstick. He says that he had a 3.9 grade-point average for the fall semester and made the dean’s list, and that he had participated in a debate on race relations the night he turned in his story. "That’s not antisocial behavior," he says.

Then school administrators got a temporary-detention order for Mr. Barber, mandating that he be held at a local psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Mr. Barber spent the weekend there, in an unlocked room with a nurse checking on him every 15 minutes. "I was scared to be alone," he says. "There are literally mentally ill people there."

On Monday morning, the hospital released Mr. Barber, after deciding he was neither mentally ill nor a threat to himself or others. He wasn’t allowed to return to campus. Several days later, the university expelled him. He unsuccessfully appealed his expulsion.

Mr. Barber says now that he wouldn’t write the same story. "I want to be at Wise, so I would write about butterflies and rainbows."

The college stands by its actions, but Mr. Juhan, the vice chancellor, is sensitive to potential downsides of its approach. Says Mr. Juhan: "How long would Edgar Allan Poe, who attended the University of Virginia, have lasted with his writings?"

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Schools: The University of Virginia’s College at Wise Valdosta State University