Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How to Spot a Nutcase 101

Many college professors often write or ask me how to cope or deal with students with emotional problems who might be a danger to them or someone they know. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to predicting violence; it is an inexact science with a high level of false positives, yet because of the seriousness of what can happen if we miss a potentially violent person, it is important for us to at least have a lay person's ability to be aware of the warning signs if they are present. This does not mean that we need to round up students who seem odd---many of us are odd but not a threat. How do you tell the difference? Following is the type of question I get from teachers or professors that may help you determine if odd behavior is a problem or not:

"I am a professor at a college and am afraid of one of my students. He seems angry and has even gone as far as to make threats. I have been trying to placate him by being nice but his behavior is getting worse since failing my course, despite some extra points I gave him. What are the warning signs I should look for and what do I do?"

According to Gavin DeBecker (1997, source is below), the warning signs of violent students include but are not limited to 1) a tendency to use threats, intimidation, manipulations, or escalations; 2) adverse reaction to criticism; 3) rigid ideas and resistant to change; 4) sullen, angry, or depressed appearance; 5) refusal to accept responsiblity for actions; 6) paranoid thoughts that others are "out to get" him or her; 7) tendency to always be involved in some grievance, crusade or mission; 8) odd behavior that produces uneasiness and apprehension in other people 9) jokes about having weapons or praise for other perpetrators of violence; and 10) expresssions of dispair or hopelessness, such as, "What's the use? Nothing changes anyway."

The first step in preventing violence before it starts is to quit being Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy--it doesn't work. Violent people often attack the very people who are helping them. Why? Because you are there and not giving them all of the help they often feel entitled to have. For example, Peter Odighizuwa shot and killed his dean at the Appalachian School of Law after the dean went out of his way to assist him in getting a car, scholarship and back in the law school after doing poorly. It is not a kindness to keep bending your grading scale by giving a few points to a marginal student. Students with a sense of entitlement will only exploit your generous nature if you give in time and time again. Be alert to manipulation from students in the form of flattery. "You are the only professor who cares" or "I don't know what I would do if I didn't have you to talk to" are examples of manipulative behavior. Never become a student's counselor. Observe teacher/student boundaries at all times. Refer the student to the student mental health clinc if he or she seems to be chronically angry or stressed where services are generally free or included in the student activities fee. While records of counseling sessions are confidential, the counselor of a troubled student can be asked to report to school officials whether the student is attending sessions as scheduled.

Never permit verbal abuse from a student, in the classroom or anywhere else. Tell the student to leave the class if they make rude inflammatory remarks. Many faculty now include civility clauses in their course syllabi, setting expectations at the beginning of the semester for classroom decorum.

Don't count on your school to help you--especially if you do not have tenure--your adjunct contract may just not be renewed. One law professor told me that his school didn't care if students made threats because "if they shot a professor, the administration could just hire someone else cheaper." Okay, maybe this is a little cynical but some colleges take little or no action against threats of violence. Apparently, it is more important to put on a PC air of superiority than to protect their professors and students. For example, I wrote a paper along with some colleagues for law professors on how to deal with angry or violent students. We submitted it to the Journal of Legal Education at Georgetown who turned it down--stating that we "must be working with John Ashcroft" given the suggestions we made. Our outrageous suggestions? Have a designated person assigned in the school to handle reports of inappropriate behavior. Do remember, however, that your school is supposed to provide you with a safe environment. The Appalachian Law School recently settled their case for one million dollars for failure to warn students and faculty about Peter Odighizuwa's dangerous behavior. You are well within your rights to ask for stepped up security or discipline for the student etc.

I have some suggestions for books for those of you who want more information on how to protect yourself from violence. The first is The Gift of Fear. It is a bit too PC for my taste at times but the author, Gavin De Becker, gives some good tips and explanations for how to avoid violence. In addition, it is an interesting and easy read. The second book is J. Reid Meloy's Violence Risk and Threat Assessment: A Practical Guide for Mental Health and Criminal Justice Professionals (Practical Guide Series (San Diego, Calif.). Meloy presents some excellent descriptions of how to assess and understand those who are potentially violent. Also check out his book, The Psychology of Stalking, if you want to understand more about the stalker in your life.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the good info, Dr helen. i'd also say that one ought to also get a CCW Permit, and learn how to use a handgun. Then carry the handgun.

8:12 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The problem is that in many schools, one cannot carry a gun nor can you carry one where there is liquor etc. In the very place one needs a weapon, you can't carry one.

8:15 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The WSJ runs a related and very interesting piece today on forced care for the mentally ill that you may find interesting (subscription required):

9:08 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. One of my former students, who spent half a semester trying to intimidate me, fit at least the first 6 of the 10 signs of potential trouble. Gosh...I just don't miss teaching, at all.

10:29 PM, February 01, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

When I was teaching 15 years ago, one of my students had an ex-boyfriend who was stalking her. This was before there were laws in our jurisdiction that made stalking a crime. His actions were troubling - leaving packages and showing up at her home at odd hours in the night, suggestive telephone calls, and leaving messages that made it clear he was following her most of the time. His actions were such that campus security became involved and the faculty was briefed about the problem.

I suggested that she talk to an attorney I knew, which she eventually did when she got scared enough. The attorney was successful in convincing the stalker he should leave the student alone. Unfortunately, the stalker turned his attention to the student's other teachers, including me. After a few weeks of misery, he was convinced him to stop only to find that he had begun stalking our 8-year-old child. We found out when he called and told us accurate details about the after-school soccer practice our child had participated in that day.

Needless to say, we took immediate action to safeguard our child but our attitude toward family privacy and security changed that day and forever more. We are still very careful in how we live and what information we allow to be made public. I think that's also a part of why I only post anonymously on the internet.

10:33 PM, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here it comes. People are going to use that checklist to smear, sabotage, and destroy other people, just like false domestic violence and rape claims.

That checklist is so broad you can make just about anyone fit it, including many people with genuine grievances. I think that's the point - diagnosis marketing by the mental health establishment, pharmaceutical industry, and academia. It's like a ponderous legal code whose purpose is oppression by selective enforcement. Almost anyone can be made to "fit the profile" for several disorders at any time, so anyone can be targeted if someone needs to target them.

It's like the Soviet system - anyone can be targeted, you just need to piss off the wrong bureaucrat.

And all the while violent crime goes down, down, down...... Don't let that stop anyone from rolling back civil rights, though. With the decrease in violent crime our society should be getting more free, not less.

I guess it comes from having half a dozen 24-hour news channels - the country and the world has to be scoured for any shockingly violent event and then have the coverage of it repeated over and over again.

12:06 AM, February 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Helen:

Interesting post, but I worry a bit.

About seven years ago, where I used to teach, there was a pretty difficult Asian student. It was clear to me that he was on "rich-boy-heroin" some of the time (if you don't know what I mean, that is a good thing). He needed some help, but was still functioning.

Too much money, too much pampering from his parents, too little accountability.

Anyway, he liked to say outrageous things. And he liked to say things to female professors that worried discussing his gun collection, etc.

I am no mental health professional. I am not some macho type, either. But I didn't perceive any real threat from the kid, and neither did several of the faculty who had him in class.

But one professor hollered to the administration that she was threatened by his persona (mind you, he had not threatened her) and he was whisked off campus for a mental evaluation.

He never returned to campus, but I am not certain he had a violence issue.

What worries me is how one person could holler and get him taken away.

Again, maybe he deserved it. But I know the female professor involved, and I trust her judgement as far as I can throw a bathtub of mercury.

Once more, I ain't saying she was wrong. But the whole scenario worried me, knowing her as I did.

12:07 AM, February 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:07-

Thanks for posting that.

That's an example of what's happening, people are using the mental health system as a kangaroo court to get around having to prove anything conclusive in the REAL legal system, thus circumventing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It's a 21st Century Witch Hunt.

"She hexed me" is now replaced with "his persona frightens me".

12:17 AM, February 02, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Recent comments seem concerned that if some benign but unusual behaviors can be labelled dangerous, this will unfairly prejudice eccentric students. I am undecided, but others are discussing this, too.

12:50 AM, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

Hi everyone,

I understand people's concerns about "lists." They are only a guideline and not written in stone and yes, some are general and stupid. It is the people who use them inappropriately who are the problem--but what commenters here do not realize is that it is also common to have the opposite extreme--or maybe I just hear about it more. People who make threats, act violently and outrageously are ignored, tolerated and left to their own devices to the point where they escalate. Even at my own sister's college, the students stalked the professors and made threats and the administration took no action at all--one of the professors finally quit in fear of one student who stalked her for over a year.

And to the commenters who mention that weird students should be tolerated--yes, if you are just strange, fine. But if you truly threaten and intimidate people by talking to them about your gun colletion --isn't that inappropriate behavior? The problem comes in with how one perceives this information. If a student is talking about a gun collection, fine--talk away--but if a student is using the information to intimidate others, that is the problem. Obviously, there is concern that some teachers will perceive threat when there is none. e.g. The teacher is PC and a student mentions his gun collection and they freak out. Here is where judgement and common sense come into play. There is no one-size fits all when it comes to predicting human nature. We must all use analysis and look at the circumstances of individual cases objectively.

8:07 AM, February 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What worries me is how one person could holler and get him taken away"

Even the Spanish Inquisition required two accusers.

Helen said "People who make threats, act violently and outrageously are ignored, tolerated and left to their own devices to the point where they escalate. "

And that's fine - the solution is to be alert and ready to respond decisively when they actually
do something overt and dangerous. Many people here have spoken of a personal armament. That deals
effectively with both the nuts who telegraph their intent AND the ones who don't.

"But if you truly threaten and intimidate people by talking to them about your gun colletion --isn't that inappropriate behavior?"

Is it intimidation if no one feels intimidated? Intimidation is something the hearer feels, not something the speaker does.
I'm reminded of the scene in "Crocodile Dundee II" where a street punk pulls a small knife on Paul Hogan's character, and he
responds "that's not a knife; THIS is a knife," as he pulls out what amounts to a small sword. He might as well be saying
"That's not intimidation; THIS is."

You mention common sense, but it's still subjective. The solution is to not act on subjective judgment, but
be prepared to respond quickly and decisively to objective actions. Granted, there may be some casualties - the
'nut' might get off a lucky first shot occassionally, but there is no freedom that doesn't have a corresponding risk.

Helen, you should also consider that publishing a checklist like that is risky for you, personally. It was the
checklist of signs of being an incest survivor in "The Courage to Heal" that convinced a civil court to rule it was a diagnostic product, not mere expression, and find against Laura Davis.

12:38 PM, February 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


That kind of thinking - that gun owners are "mentally ill" - isn't confined to Canada. The area I live in is funny. People regularly threaten people with their various mafia or gang connections - which is basically just threatening people with illegal gun owners that you know - but then cry out for all kinds of gun control and try to claim that legal gun owners are mentally ill. They have to be retarded.


No, we do have to deal with people's crazy or strange behavior. This includes the ones with psych degrees and the ones in office that want to create a de facto police state when violent crime has been dropping for decades.

If you're "dealing with someone's crazy or inappropriate behavior" don't be juvenile about it. Take a self-defense course, get a security system, get a dog, get pepper spray, if you're comfortable with it, buy a gun. But don't try to erode everyone else's civil rights because certain people seem "crazy" to you, which may or may not be a function of your own baggage.

1:10 PM, February 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It does imply a form of a police state. Look, no system is perfect, utopia is unachievable. There are always drawbacks, and one of the drawbacks of liberty, and a truly libertarian society is that society can't eliminate certain risks. A free society can't persecute people for what they're "maybe gonna" do. It's not a wrong until you actually DO SOMETHING (except, of course, in Catholicism) A free society allows people to take measures to protect themselves when a nutcase actually escalates to overt action (by being armed, for instance.) Is it possible the nutcase will get off a lucky shot before someone puts him/her down? Yes, but that's the finite risk of a free society. Let's face it, a lot of lives could be saved if we did away with things like due process, too, but the bottom line is, when you start acting on strange behavior based on what it indicates a person might do later, you're trading liberty for security, and you know what Ben Franklin said about that.

12:08 PM, February 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was reading the warning signs as quoted from G.DeBecker... and I try to narrow it down between the more severe signs (direct and primary) and the milder signs, no i am not an official expert, but then again....
1) a tendency to use threats, intimidation, manipulations, or escalations; 2) adverse reaction to criticism AND 9) jokes about having weapons or praise for other perpetrators of violence.... these three, SYMPTOMS, to me produce all the rest of the warning signs....
I have seen it all and I have not experienced much, but those symptoms I wait for on a constant day to day basis away from my friends.... hint, we need actual friends and yet trust few of them, but love them all for who they are....
and yes going with what we feel is a key to solving this bottling up of slow acceptance to adjusting... no pain no gain... express it... but only to make the conscientious adjustment...
thank you....

8:33 PM, February 07, 2007  
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