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News Opinion Editorial

Campus nightmare

There is still much we do not know about Dayvon Green, the University of Maryland, College Park student who police say fatally shot one of his roommates, Stephen Alex Rane, and seriously wounded another outside their off-campus apartment before taking his own life on Tuesday. Mr. Green, a promising graduate engineering student from the Baltimore area, reportedly was under treatment for mental illness, and though the precise nature of his condition has not been confirmed, investigators believe it may have been a factor in this horrible crime. But it's unclear whether anyone at the university was aware of Mr. Green's condition or, if they were, what they could have done to prevent the tragedy.

This isn't the first time recently when a mental illness has been involved in the death or injury of students at the hands of peers. Last year, a mentally disturbed student at Morgan State University, Alexander Kinyua, assaulted a college roommate with a baseball bat; later, authorities charge, he murdered a house guest in his parents' home. Mr. Kinyua, who may have been prompted to violence by a schizophrenic episode, was judged not competent to stand trial in the earlier assault incident and is being treated at the state's Clifton T. Perkins Hospital.

Investigators in College Park recovered the handgun Mr. Green used to carry out the shootings, as well as a cache of weapons in his backpack that included a fully loaded semiautomatic Uzi machine pistol, a machete and a baseball bat. It appears that both firearms were purchased legally by Mr. Green. Under Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed legislation to ban sales of military-style assault weapons in Maryland, it's possible Mr. Green might have been prevented from purchasing the Uzi. But the law wouldn't have stopped him from buying the handgun he actually used.

Nor is it clear that a state law prohibiting sales of firearms to people with mental illnesses would have forestalled this tragedy. The ban only applies to guns sales to people who have been involuntary committed to a mental hospital or who have voluntarily committed themselves to a facility for more than 30 consecutive days. Since Mr. Green reportedly was taking medications for his condition, chances are he had received some sort of treatment, but whether it ever involved a commitment that would have triggered the law remains unknown.

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh said Tuesday night that "there are lessons to be learned, policy questions to be discussed, changes to be made," but they may not be easy ones. Many college students find themselves in a new and unfamiliar environment away from home, often for the first time, and separated from family and friends who know them well — and typically at the same stage of life in which some mental illnesses often first manifest themselves. Mr. Green had lived with his roommates only a few months, and they may not have known him well enough to spot the kind of changes in his behavior that could indicate a problem.

College Park has a counseling center that offers mental health services for students, faculty and staff. According to the university, however, Mr. Green had never sought treatment there. And although his family may have been aware of his illness, there's no evidence they communicated that knowledge to the school or to those who shared the apartment with their son.

The deaths of Mr. Green and his roommate, along with the wounding of another student, demonstrate the need for colleges to help faculty and students become more aware of potential mental health problems they observe. Such discussions should occur early on, during orientation week for incoming students, for instance. Being able to identify peers who are psychologically distressed and recognize the changes in behavior that signal problems would allow students to react more appropriately and be more in control of situations that may arise. Emotional problems, unusual acting out, suicidal thoughts or bizarre responses such as talking off the subject, rambling or laughing inappropriately are all signs that something may be amiss.

At the same time, colleges must be clear that most people who suffer from mental illness are not prone to violence, especially if they are in treatment, and that it is often impossible to predict which people are likely to become a danger to themselves or others. Learning to make such judgments about their peers won't ensure that a tragedy will never occur, but it's important for everyone in the school community to be aware of the stakes involved, especially in a society where the proliferation of guns can quickly make a bad situation lethal.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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