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Challenging the carceral campus: mental health, illness & 'threat'

Nev Jones PhD

In the mid 2000s, a wave of campus shootings, including Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, helped usher in a new era of ‘threat’ “behavioral threat assessment and management” policies and practices in higher education. In the wake of Virginia Tech, institutional, state and federal committees, commissions and taskforces were convened across the US (cf Leavitt et al., 2007; Deisinger & Scalora, 2016; Stewart, 2007). An influential internal review at Virginia Tech, explicitly and repeatedly singled out behavioral health, recommending a strong shift from reactive to “proactive” threat assessment, including mechanisms for immediate reporting of behavioral concerns by any concerned party, including instructors, students and campus counseling center staff (Stewart, 2007). Taking up this charge, the Commonwealth of Virginia quickly introduced statutory requirements that all institutions of higher education develop and implement policies for “assessment and intervention with individuals whose behavior poses a threat to the safety of the campus community” (Virginia, 2008).

As is generally true of carceral logics (or “punitive orientations to difference,” as Ruby Tapia puts it), campus threat response policies that have resulted virtually all extend and expand operative definitions of “risk” from a small set of concrete factors (e.g. verbal threats) to ‘mental illness’ more generally. A guidance essay published in the Campus Security Report, for example, quotes the captain of the Community College Bureau for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as saying “It's not a matter of if but when…The bottom line is that mental health is often at the center of things that happen that are bad” (quoted in Hope, 2016). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in its official school threat assessment guidance, blanketly warns that “signs of serious mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders… significantly elevate the risk for violence” (O’Toole, 2009). “The case for such intervention [might] look unassailable when we work backward from [mass shooters with known histories of psychiatric disability],” an editorial from the Chronicle of Higher Ed reframes it, “but what if we worked backward from every other case in which a student is swept up in this new campus surveillance? ” (Reis, 2011).

And herein lies the real rub: the reality is that this brave new era of surveillance and “management” has not only demonstrably failed to reduce school or campus violence, but has almost certainly worsened stigma, undermined disability inclusion efforts in higher ed, and derailed the lives of an untold number of students. (Because there are no public reporting requirements associated with campus threat management policies, truly no one knows how many lives have been impacted.). I was one such student. In spite of being a diminutive White woman, with an impeccable academic history and absolutely no record of violence or misconduct, I was reported to my university’s I was reported to the Dean of Students office as a threat to the campus community, placed on involuntary leave and told that security would escort me off if I so much as tried to set foot on campus. Only because of a diagnosis of schizophrenia, reported to department faculty by a well-intentioned therapist.

There are of course the immediate injuries of such experiences, but also more diffuse ones: relationships with trusted mentors who have categorized one as “potentially violent” and “a threat” are seriously damaged; one’s self-esteem fundamentally undermined. Doubts creep in: maybe I deserved this, maybe I am a bad person. If you’re placed on leave and thereby lose fellowships, student loans, college health insurance, the debt quickly piles up; credit cards, medical bills you have no way to pay. Your life comes to seem like more and more of a trainwreck.

And of course “threat management” is only a piece of it. Within and outside college campuses, stigma and discrimination targeting individuals labelled with or assumed to have “serious mental illnesses,” particularly psychosis, are regularly demonized and excluded. Between 70 and 90% of individuals labelled with schizophrenia in the US are unemployed, most living well below the federal poverty line. And this “downward social mobility” results in no small part from society’s reactions to (and rejection of) mental difference because of fear, perceived instability and dangerousness, “threat.”

By the time I actually completed a PhD, I had been told, by university faculty, including leading social and political philosophers and critical theorists of race and gender, that “it would be a crime to allow [me] to take any further college courses since [I] would never be able to pay back student loans.” The director of my university disability resource office as a grad student told me to “rethink the PhD” because such a career would likely be “inappropriate for someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.” In psychology my doctoral student fellowship was pulled because a flexible schedule to attend multiple psychiatric appointments every well wasn’t a “reasonable” accommodation. When I expressed anger (anger of course motivated by pain) on an APA division listserv about APA ratification of a statement linking gun violence to mental illness, the graduate committee in my program noted it on my evaluation as a “lack of professionalism.” And I am, truly am, one of the lucky ones. Someone who can now write from a place of significant privilege, as a college professor at a major research institution.

All of the above needs to be said and said again for a variety of reasons, but I write it here and now to underscore why the ‘campus mental health’ convening we’ve recently launched, matters so much. Students' lives really are at stake. And while suicide prevention and general student well-being are certainly important, it’s neither courageous nor ethical to refuse or fail to visibilize, agendize and dismantle carceral policies impacting students with the most stigmatized disabilities, with the most actual risk, not of violence, but long-term social exclusion and poverty. To do so, we need to ask hard questions about the status quo, identify both gaps in the research literature and promising practices, center the perspectives of students and activists who have been directly impacted by coercion and exclusion, and start to imagine a different world. And we will.


Deisinger, E. R., & Scalora, M. J. (2016). Threat assessment and management in higher education in the United States: A review of the 10 years since the mass casualty incident at Virginia Tech. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 3(3-4), 186-92.

Fox, J. A., & Savage, J. (2009). Mass murder goes to college: An examination of changes on college campuses following Virginia Tech. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(10), 1465-1485.

Hope, J. (2016). Be proactive, collaborate to address mental health threats. Campus Security Report, 12(11), 1-5.

Leavitt, M. O., Spellings, M., & Gonzales, A. R. (2007). Report to the President on issues raised by the Virginia Tech tragedy. Department of Human Services, Department of Education, Department of Justice (June 2007), 10-16.

O'Toole, M. E. (2000). The school shooter: a threat assessment perspective. Quantico, VA: critical incident response group, FBI Academy. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

Reis, B. (2011). Campus security and the specter mental-health profiling. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Stewart, J. W. (2007). Inspection of April 16, 2007 critical incident at Virginia Tech. Richmond, VA: Commonwealth of Virginia, Office of the Deisinger & Scalora in J. of Threat Assessment & Mgmt. 2016 24 Inspector General for Mental Health, Mental Retardation & Substance Abuse Services.

Virginia. (2008). Code of Virginia § 23–9.2:10 (§ 23.1–805 as of October 1, 2016).


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