Virginia Tech, like other colleges trying to help emotionally troubled students, had little power to force Cho Seung-Hui off campus and into treatment, says the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We can’t even pick up the phone and call their family. They’re adults. You have to respect their privacy,” said Brenda Ingram-Wallace, director of counseling and chair of the psychology department at Albright College in Reading, Pa., After the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, counselors, police authorities, and mental-health professionals say privacy laws prevent colleges from taking strong action regarding students who might be dangerous.
In 2005, after a second stalking complaint, the school obtained a temporary detention order that resulted in Cho undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. But the 23-year-old remained enrolled until the moment he shot himself to death. Federal laws such as the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protect students’ right to privacy by banning disclosure of any mental-health problems – even to family members – without a signed waiver. “The law tends to be protective of individual autonomy rather than getting in there and forcing people to get treatment,” said Anthony Rostain, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.