A Troubling Message

February 6, 2012

A student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst caused a panic last week when he slid letters under the doors throughout a campus residence hall. Complaining about the social culture at the institution and saying he was "pissed off at this campus," the student declared he would start a "friends club" out of loneliness and a desire to form meaningful relationships. He ended the letter, sealed in envelopes stamped with a happy face, asking anyone interested in becoming friends or "[creating] things to do on campus" to meet him at a campus dining hall between 6 and 7 p.m., Jan. 30 through Feb. 3.

He signed it, "Remember that I love you, Tyler Molander.

"Please don't come if you are acquainted with me, I apologize, but just trust me."

It was that line that apparently caused students to quickly circulate the letter online and notify campus police. While the university is not confirming details of how it handled the situation, Molander said in a letter posted on his Facebook page, which he says he sent to the dean, that after undergoing a "psychological analysis," he was asked to withdraw. He is no longer enrolled at the university.

The case illustrates how quickly -- in a post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech environment -- a campus can become unnerved. But it may also say something about how a student who is lonely and a little unconventional may be treated as someone to fear.

The university later stated in The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper, that "There were no explicit threats and after several days of investigating the matter, we now know there were no threats implied." That was two days after the Collegian published an editorial defending Molander and accusing the university of, rather than trying to support the student, "further alienation of someone who, in the end, was merely trying to reach out."

But Brian Van Brunt, director of the Counseling and Testing Center at Western Kentucky University and a past president of the American College Counseling Association, said the institution was right to react.

"Students say things that are considered threatening all the time," he said. "What makes it concerning is when it takes a degree of specificity.... When that student targets a specific person or location." Such as the campus dining center, the Blue Wall, which was given in the letter as the meeting point.

Most of the five-paragraph letter, the text of which Molander transcribed to his Facebook page, simply conveys a desire for meaningful connections, Van Brunt said. He says he wants to "do new things, real things," to have a group of friends "that do not need to rely on common interests or activities in order to foster friendship, love, and new experiences." (Molander did not respond to a Facebook message requesting comment.)

But Molander's method of delivery, and his apparent belief that he's fundamentally different from others, appears to have isolated him further.

Collegian Editor-in-Chief Alyssa Creamer and Assistant News Editor Dan Glaun reported on the letter and its aftermath. Glaun said that while it's unclear whether students had "definite fears" that Molander might take violent action at the Blue Wall, "it's safe to say there was discomfort."

As for why students responded with such alarm -- failing to "separate tone from content," as the editorial board wrote -- Creamer speculated that "it's kind of a psychological thing."

"Normal student reactions or interactions with each other are usually face-to-face," she said. "You meet through collective interests and shared experiences, and so a proposition to befriend someone through a letter, to just befriend strangers, I suppose some students would think is a little unusual."

Glaun admitted that even though it was "sort of sad, really, and definitely not the best outcome" that Molander was allegedly asked to leave the university, he was slightly troubled by Molander's telling his own acquaintances not to go to the Blue Wall. "We understand the anxiety, to a certain extent," Glaun said. "It can be read sort of ambiguously."

If there was cause to believe Molander would harm himself or others, standard procedure would suggest the university would put him through a threat assessment. If administrators saw fit, or believed he could be a danger to himself, they could ask the student to withdraw, Van Brunt said, perhaps with incentives like a tuition refund or not including the unfinished classes on his transcript. (However, new Office for Civil Rights rules suggest the university could not force the student to take medical leave unless he posed a clear threat to others.)

University spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said the concern has largely evaporated and he doesn't think students view Molander as a threat.

"I think broadly writ, we live in an era where concern about student safety and security is very much a front-and-center topic, and, you know, there have been incidents across the country where violence has occurred on college campuses," Blaguszewski said. In part thanks to the advent of social media, he said, "Views and concerns and commentary can spread quickly. And what we all have to do in that era is try to respond properly, but at the same time responsibly, thoughtfully and deliberately and fairly, and strike that balance."

The case illustrates the need for colleges to make sure they're reaching out to students who might feel isolated and perhaps don't realize it can be socially inappropriate to express their frustrations in certain ways, Van Brunt said.

"If we can identify these students early on and engage them and connect them," he said, "we're going to be better able to work with and help that person."

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