The Virginia General Assembly is considering legislation that would require public universities to notify parents of students receiving treatment at the student counseling center whether the students are deemed a danger to themselves or others.
House Bill 1251 would be optional for private institutions, including the University of Richmond.
Del. William H. Fralin Jr., the bill's chief patron, was not available for comment on the bill. He represents District 17, which includes areas near Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., but does not include Blacksburg itself. Del. James M. Shuler, the representative whose district includes Blacksburg, has not indicated support for the bill and was not available for comment.
Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, one of the bill's co-patrons, represents areas of Virginia that include all or portions of the cities of Richmond and Hopewell, Charles City and Henrico counties. He said last April's tragedy at Virginia Tech was a chief reason that he signed on to this bill.
Morrissey said he believed in encouraging young people under the age of 18 to seek mental health treatment for whatever was ailing them, and agreed that there must be some understanding that what they share with a counselor won't be shared with their parents.
"Because of the situation ... at Tech and what I've read (about) how the student's parents might have responded if they had known, it's hard for me to say," Morrissey said. "While there may be some downside to the student having his parents find out, the upside is far greater."
He said this upside of sharing the child's illness with a parent would allow them to coordinate some type of treatment program with the child. There is currently no requirement that mental health professionals must notify parents, Morrissey said.
Dan LaVista, executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said most people concerned with this issue had come to the decision that this bill should be permissive rather than required.
Most patrons are looking to address the mental health demands as they relate to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, he said. But they also try to have a good middle ground with students under the privacy act by assisting parents and maintaining the mental health and well-being of all students, he said.
Rosezelia Roy, who works with Virginia State University Counseling Center, said VSU's center would embrace the new legislation.
"When counseling, we are listening for certain things to see if a person is at a certain point," she said. "We don't want a student to hurt themselves or others, so we're looking at both sides of it at all times. If a situation comes up and we feel notifying the parents is warranted because of certain indicators — not off the bat — but with certain indicators, we will absolutely do so."
Some legislators and mental health professionals are concerned that this might deter students from seeking counseling if they don't want their parents knowing they're in treatment.
"I think the intention of the legislation is good, but it does not give enough options," said Peter LeViness, director of Richmond's Counseling and Psychological Services.
LeViness also said that because the legislation would require counselors to notify parents in all cases, some parents would be worried needlessly, especially since many live far away and would be unable to immediately help. The legislation would be improved if the severity of each student's situation was considered, he said.
Morrissey disagreed, saying that he did not think it would deter a large percentage of students who would otherwise seek counseling. But he did agree that some would be deterred, which would be unfortunate, he said.
"I also think there will be tremendous pressure put on private institutions to participate," Morrissey said.
CAPS already has the ability and expectation to involve others to help a student in need, LeViness said. These options include police, the dean's office and parents, among others. He said he doubted that legislators had consulted with mental health professionals on campuses when putting the legislation together, because they would be the people affected by this legislation, he said.
The legislation does contain a provision, or safety clause, that gives exception to cases if it would be detrimental to the student or if the parent is likely to cause the student harm, Morrissey said. This alleviates the concern that students will not seek help for fear of their parents being told, he said.
This clause also allows a student to ask the counselor not to notify his parents, at which point the counselor would exercise his professional judgment to decide whether it would help the student if his parents were notified.
LeViness said this clause helps make the legislation more palatable to him as a mental health professional, but it would still be tough to draw the line since the bill requires that the parents be notified. He also said he hoped more attention would be given to funding in mental health services in Virginia.
"Most people want to ensure that all that can be done is being done to ensure student safety," LaVista said. "We feel good about people trying to meet that goal and also respect rights of students under federal law"