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Cornell's Involuntary Leave Policy

For all of the grieving that Hokies and the entire nation are going through this week, its unfortunate that the media has so quickly taken to playing a sensationalist blame game. Such antics only disrupt the process of healing: remembrance, understanding, and acceptance.

That said, to doubt the early-morning decisions made by Virginia Tech's administration regarding a seemingly isolated domestic incident seems inherently unfair, and will no doubt only create unwarranted remorse that individuals will have to live the rest of their lives with.

What's a little bit more regretful is that Cho's troubled personality had been identified by campus officials a year and a half ago, was recommended for involuntary commitment at a psychiatric hospital, and yet the university allowed him to remain a student. Still, one can only trust that the individuals who were responsible for Cho's case acted with sound judgment and the best information.

Cornell actually has an involuntary leave policy "for reasons of personal or community safety". Interestingly, though, the New York Times is reporting that universities "cannot put students on involuntary medical leave, just because they develop a serious mental illness."

Kitsch Magazine, which I lauded for other reasons last week, actually ran a fascinating article on Cornell's involuntary leave policy last semester. Michelle Pascucci reports:

Susan Murphy, Vice President of Student and Academic Affairs, elaborated: “Ideally, we never have to evoke [the policy] but it is necessary for the health and welfare of individuals if they are sufficiently ill to need inpatient care.”

The policy, according to Greg Eells, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), is most likely employed when ill students refuse to receive help. Students suffering from alcoholism or eating disorders, and suicidal or self-harming students can be asked to leave campus to receive care for their illnesses even if they are maintaining a high GPA and completing work.

“It’s an effective tool to give [these students] care when they don’t know they need care,” said Eells.

... Eells said that the administration’s first step is to suggest that a student takes a voluntary leave of absence, which constitutes the majority of medical leaves. It is only after a student has continued to engage in destructive behavior while refusing to receive care or consider voluntary leave that involuntary leave is enacted. (Voluntary leave is ultimately much more frequent than involuntary leave. According to Eells, there were 125 cases of voluntary leave last year while Murphy cited a maximum of one case of mandatory leave per year.)

“We try to stay away from anything punitive in CAPS,” said Eells, “At the same time, we’re legally obligated to protect students.”

At the end of the day, there's only so much that can be done, difficult decisions abound, and hindsight is always 20/20.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 19, 2007 (#)

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