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I run a lab at an R1 university in the USA. Almost ten years ago I removed an undergraduate volunteer student from my laboratory group for harassing another student.

Today I received a multi-page, rambling, angry email from the student volunteer I removed. The email is disturbing, including references to drugs, illness, abuse, and depression. It ends in a way that could be construed as a threat, but is not a direct threat. It also does not contain any indication of intent to self-harm.

Were this person a student, there exists university services to help and check their situation, but they are no longer a student. They do live in the same city I do.

  1. Am I correct that my university is in no way involved at this point?

  2. Do I have any duty to attempt to help? If so, is there a way to do so that does not engage the individual directly (which I hesitate to do)?

  3. Beyond a police restraining order, is there any action I might take to insulate myself and my significant other from any negative actions this individual might take?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Feb 29 at 8:06
  • Is the letter like "I was fired, so I took drugs" or more like "you are guilty I took drugs"? – user111388 Feb 29 at 14:56
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Campus police is in charge of keeping everyone on campus safe -- both from other members of the university as well as people outside the university. They're your first point of contact, and if the email can be construed as a threat, then they should take it seriously. If they think that they require help from outside, they will refer the matter to the city police. City police will, for example, be in charge of restraining orders that relate to your home, your SO, and everything else you do outside campus.

As for helping: As humans, we want to and should. At the same time, I don't think that you have a moral obligation, and certainly no legal one. The person is no longer under your supervision or care, nor do you really have any way to connect to the person: They're clearly not interested in listening to you.

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    Yes, this is something for the authorities to handle. But, by informing them of the issue you may, in fact, be helping the individual get the counseling they need. – Buffy Feb 26 at 14:22
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    As I understand it, restraining orders (in the US, and the question is tagged with united-states) are issued by courts, not police departments. – The Photon Feb 26 at 18:20
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    "As for helping: As humans, we want to and should. At the same time, I don't think that you have a moral obligation, and certainly no legal one." Great point, and it may be worth adding that OP likely doesn't have the training and education to appropriately help this individual who seems to be psychologically disturbed. This advice may come across as crass, but this is to preserve the safety of OP, the individual writing the email, and others. – 8protons Feb 26 at 19:11
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    @ThePhoton: Correct. But the enforcement of a restraining order is a police matter, as is petitioning a court to issue one. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 26 at 20:02
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    Don't forget: restraining orders are not magic force fields. If the restrained person is descending into mental illness or has trouble complying with rules, they may ignore the order. Also, I don't imagine campus police roam the college looking for people who should not be there; it would probably be unusual or threatening behavior that would cause anybody on campus to call the police. So even if you get an order, be careful and safe: watch for people lurking near your car or house, have somebody walk with you to your car, etc. – Flynn Feb 27 at 19:30
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@Wolfgang Bangerth already answered the, to me, most pressing part perfectly well. Bring this to the attention of Campus police.

So as a side answer:

1) Am I correct that my university is in no way involved at this point?

2) Do I have any duty to attempt to help? If so, is there a way to do so that does not engage the individual directly (which I hesitate to do)?

While I applaud and personally would probably feel similarly in regards to what seems like your impulse to help, in terms of caring that someone seems to be experiencing distress, you may need to consider that because your prior interaction with the individual is related to the University, and that contact seems to be the only reason they are now contacting you, further involvement on your part may create a point of involvement for the University, even if it could be considered that the University currently has no current involvement with the individual.

First and foremost, reaching out to this person could be directly dangerous to you, given the nature of their communication so far. If you were going to help, it does sound like a situation where the best chance of achieving a positive outcome in terms of help would be by someone who is a mental health professional, which presumably you are not. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult in the US to arrange that type of help for someone else in a positive manner, and ultimately if it's not something they're receptive to in the first place it's unlikely to be helpful (or happen at all).

It might also be worth considering that even absent any legal duty on your part, your actions or lack thereof in response to this may come up for some kind of review (not necessarily in the formal/professional sense: for example, if a public incident were to occur and the press became involved, this might come to light and be cast certain ways, at which point you would definitely want to defer to your University's Communications/Public Affairs department) if something were to occur and it were linked to the University. This isn't the type of thing you should have to concern yourself with, but it's worth being aware of.

University Legal Counsel

If you want to pursue this further, my personal first impulse would be to reach out to your University's legal counsel, because of the nature of the issue where you are still employed by the same University and the individual is a former student, and this most recent contact seems to only be related to that. They are also the ones most likely to be knowledgeable about perhaps connecting you with local resources (and related local laws) for trying to navigate any way that you can try to arrange for help for this person indirectly, without responding to them.

My personal feeling on this is that since the individual has contacted you in relationship to your position with the University and your contact with them in that position, the University's legal counsel is also an appropriate avenue for any concerns you might have beyond those addressed with notification of campus police. Note that legal counsel is for and represents the University, and seeking them out insofar as your role with the University is appropriate when the situation has occurred due to and in your role as an employee of the University, but even if they become involved they represent the University and if you have other legal concerns related to the situation you might need to seek your own individual representation. Hopefully things wouldn't go that far, but it's a distinction worth keeping in mind.

If University Legal Counsel were to consider this a strictly personal matter, then you would also have a fairly definitive answer in regards to their consideration of whether or not your University "is in no way involved at this point", and that answer would come from one of the parties that matter most in that vein, particularly if anything else were to happen in the future in relation to this.

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    They are unlikely to see this as a personal matter: if e.g. a violent psychotic break is festering in the ex-student, it will become a campus-related problem. Furthermore, uni has a duty of care for members of staff; this concerns a hazard OP incurred in the line of duty. The idea that OP might trigger something by responding (uni involvement, partial responsibility) is not legally sound and unlikely to be the stance taken by the uni. A brief, kind response from OP to ex-student may defuse the situation; if instead it triggers a hostile response, further action by uni is now warranted. – Deipatrous Feb 27 at 13:02
  • @Deipatrous to be clear, I did not mean that the OP would trigger an incident with legal responsibility necessarily for the University in terms of hard liability, but rather that particularly from PR angles, a former student reaching out to a University employee and something happening following a response from the University employee would be tied directly back to the University if it became newsworthy/etc. I absolutely agree that a brief, kind response should be fine, but sometimes those get poorly worded and poorly construed in turn. LC exists to help with that, among other things. – taswyn Feb 28 at 21:21
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Be sure to inform somebody official, ideally the police. Make sure it's actually recorded.

If the person escalates he may well try to say that you are the instigator.

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    Did you write that whilst down the pub? – Mark Ramotowski Feb 26 at 22:08
  • That is a great username... :-) – cag51 Feb 27 at 4:49
  • You also might want to see if there is a way you can get this person psychiatric help. A similar sort of disgruntled "ex-academic" came back with a gun, several months later and shot 3 people at UAH. You think this was nothing and well in the past, but that is obviously NOT how this person sees it. In my mind, your legal liabilities are the least of your worries and your physical safety might be directly impacted if this person does not get help. – boatcoder Feb 27 at 19:15
  • @MarkRamotowski, begorrah, I hope he is not as Irish as me. ☘️ – Rita Geraghty Feb 27 at 20:00
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If the person is no longer a member of the university community, there isn't much they can do in terms of providing mental health services to help. The student isn't necessarily 'mentally ill' as much as they are upset about being removed from the group. It's pouring salt on a wound. That person may have already been struggling with things that you weren't aware of and you just further irritated the situation. Rejection is generally not an enjoyable experience for anybody and everybody reacts differently to it.

You have no obligation to help and I would advise against doing so. That's when a person can get themselves into serious trouble. People have been murdered in the past in these same situations. This person might still harbor some animosity toward you for removing them from the group. Also, people tend to think they're helping when they're actually causing further harm. The fact that you labeled this student as mentally ill and are trying to get them help for what you perceive as 'mental illness' would be an offensive slap in the face to the former student. You'd be pouring even more salt on the wound.

Every situation is different and needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If it was just an email at this point I don't know that I would go as far as a police restraining order unless the harassment continues. Again, you'd be pouring more salt on the wound and this might further motivate the student to seek revenge against you. People always feel the need to win. They're programmed that way and that can cause the situation to escalate out of control. They always have to have the last word. They have to win the argument or the conflict at any cost.

You don't want to ruin anybody's life unnecessarily or as a first-resort effort. The best thing to do in this case is to not engage at all with the student. Simply ignore the email but don't delete it. Print it out and keep it documented. He obviously hasn't gotten over it if this happened 10 years ago. If the harassment persists that's when you need to escalate to the next level which may or may not include a police restraining order.

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    You don't think "just an email at this point" is understating things? It's a "rambling, angry email" 10 years after the event. This suggests to me that a lot more alarm is warranted. – Jeff Feb 27 at 23:25
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    It is alarming but what is anybody gonna do about it? In my experience, they don't do jack. Trying to get anybody to do anything about it is like pulling teeth. You often gotta protect yourself. You can't rely on the police or government to do it for you. They're just gonna laugh at you, consider you a crazy person and probably take advantage of you like everybody else. – Justa Guy Feb 27 at 23:44
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    Seems like what he's seeking is a response from this professor and the minute they respond is when the situation escalates. It would be important for the professor to be very tactful, sympathetic and understanding in their response without being combative because I have a sneaking suspicion that's what the student wants...a fight. Like I said, best to just not engage at all. Emails are easily ignored. When he doesn't get a response he'll likely learn to give up. ;-) – Justa Guy Feb 28 at 0:05
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I've had two similar cases. One student ended up trying to kill himself, and one went crazy and luckily disappeared from sight.

My personal takeaway is this:

  1. Protect yourself: Disturbed people can be extremely dangerous in many different ways.

He might physically harm you, your loved ones, or your current students. The best way is to disengage, but how to depends a lot on the specific case. Maybe he will let go if you don't even reply, or maybe that will make him more angry. Maybe you can reply in such a boring way that he loses interest, or maybe you can get him help in such a way that he can't blame you.

You also have to expect that he might slander you. He could file complaints against you, or accuse you of harassment. Universities take this very seriously and it might cost you your job.

  1. CYA

You have to officially and in writing involve university authorities asap. You should be aware though that police, university, and security are not your friends. The university will fear any lawsuit, if the student falsely accuses you of harassment, it might be less risky for them to get rid of you as well. So you have to make it very clear in your written notice to the university administration that this student was dismissed by you because of harassment. Hopefully there will be written records that you can attach.

In my case I contacted HR, and all they cared about was protecting the university. All questions were very clearly geared towards this. If you tell them that you do not fear for your safety, they will make a written note that you said you didn't fear for your safety, and if anything later happens, they will show this as proof that they used reasonable care.

  1. Realize that you probably cannot help a deranged individual. In my case, I thought that I could be a hero and rescue a lost soul, but that did not work. I can't go into specifics, but I tried to be helpful and offered to meet a student who threated suicide on the weekend and go for a coffee. This ended with the university administration accusing me of improper behavior. Another student learned where I lived when I talked to her, she showed up at my place at night and put me in a very difficult situation. She threatened to kill herself, but I could not call the police because I was afraid that the report might have made it back to my employer.

Mentally ill people have great skill to drag you in and make you belive that you are the only person who can rescue them, every one else is just treating them badly. Don't fall for that trick.

  1. History is full of messages getting lost, so you need to make sure that all of the right people are informed. Definitely contact the legal counsel of the university in writing, but also contact the campus police, and consider filing a regular police report and getting a protective order against him. Do not expect the campus police to talk to the regular police. Do not just contact a random police officer or security guard. Make sure that whoever is in charge is informed. If you meet in person, send an email with your notes to him afterwards so that they can't deny talking to you later.

  2. Protect your students. Let them know about the person, keep doors locked, and instruct them to immediately call the police if he appears.

About your points. 1) I don't think this is correct, you definitely have to let the university know for your own protection and so that they can protect other people.

2) I don't think you can help without getting into the danger zone. The best you can do is inform authorities.

3) Don't think just because you filed a restraining order that he will stay away from you. If he shows up, do not engage, do net tell him to leave, immediately call 911. You could also consider self defense. I am not sure if a firearm is a good idea, but get some pepper spray, make sure you have good situational awareness. Gavin de Becker wrote a couple great books on this subject.

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Everyone else has given good advice about your own personal security.

With respect to helping your former student - if you know where they are currently located, I would recommend contacting the local police and requesting that they do a wellness check on the individual. This is not an accusation of a crime or anything like that, it won't go on their record or be used against them in any way, it's just a statement that you're concerned about the mental state of the individual and that they may be considering harming themselves.

The police will (usually, hopefully) send someone out to visit them and make sure that they're not an obvious threat to themselves or to the community. If the student is obviously unstable they will most likely get taken to the hospital for evaluation.

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1. Am I correct that my university is in no way involved at this point?

Yes, unless you can convince them to become involved. That may or may not be beneficial.

2. Do I have any duty to attempt to help?

No.

If so, is there a way to do so that does not engage the individual directly (which I hesitate to do)?

Asking the police to do a wellness check may be such an option, but be cautious about records and rights. For example, you will want to look into public records laws. While these help with govt transparency, they also can make the simple act of asking for a wellness check itself a request-able record. This may be compounded if you are an employee of a state school. If, for example, you were at a state school in Florida you would find that any correspondence with your university, with police, or related to the original issue becomes public record, request-able for $12 and your name. You may then be exposed to further, more directed, harassment, or in some jurisdictions can be targeted for harassment charges yourself. Would you like to defend that the contents of your letter warranted such a request to the police, in court, on the record, for local newspapers? You should talk to an attorney about this. Do not trust the police to know the law.

3. Beyond a police restraining order, is there any action I might take to insulate myself and my significant other from any negative actions this individual might take?

Have a secure home and a plan. Talk to your family. Know your options and available actions in various scenarios. Only buy a weapon if you have a clear understanding of how and when to use it.

Buy good understanding of the law. A few hundred dollars to a lawyer specializing in harassment cases in your local area would be a wise investment. Do not rely on your friends, the police, or internet strangers to understand a situation that is rooted in a local legal and societal situation, as well as a set of circumstances you are clearly not comfortable posting in full on the internet. Nor should you be comfortable with that.

Also work to understand your university. HR, campus police, the dean, etc. are not your friends, necessarily. They exist to protect the university, not you. Be very cautious with the prevailing wisdom here: your university is likely to take actions that protect you only when they also protect the administrator in question, student body, etc. Do you have a strong local union? Talk to them. Can you find colleges who have faced similar situations? How did they fare? Tread lightly. In some scenarios you could tank your career even if the person never contacts you again.

Learn by talking to others. You sound like an individual who has lived a life with very little harassment. Frankly, this entire thread sounds like advice from a bunch of white men to one another: the blind leading the blind. Talk to the racial and gender minorities in your life, if you have some who are willing to speak directly with you. They will have dealt with harassment more often, and can tell you about your local environment. Also talk with any friends you may have on the local police force, away from their official capacity. In most jurisdictions, the police cannot protect you well from harassment. Even in the best of situations they arrive slowly. Reports and restraining orders come with an implicit understanding to the individual you wish to avoid that 'this person tried to hurt me'. That can have consequences.

In sum, much of the advice here seems, to me, deeply flawed and divorced from reality. You need to think hard about this. Advice about criminal harassment from an internet forum for professors and grad students, a largely privileged population, well, it's certainly suspect. Find better advice. Challenge your assumptions. This sounds like a scary situation for you. Be smart. Be safe.

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    I didn't downvote but putting almost all of this in bold just makes it harder to read - when (almost) everything's emphasized, nothing is. – Noah Schweber Mar 3 at 12:49
  • I've fixed the bolding issue. I've also read and enjoyed this reply. Some good thoughts here. Thank you, user104. – Industrademic Mar 5 at 15:51
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You seem to imply but do not state that the email comes from the person you removed, not from the student who was harassed and subsequently protected by your action. If the latter, they are perhaps turning to you because you were a past benefactor. In this case you do have a moral duty to respond.

However, everyone here assumes you mean the former. In this case, some of the anger may be directed at you. Again, you imply this but do not state it. The implication seems to be that your action of removing him (her?) precipitated the subsequent loss of control, at least in his/her eyes. It is 10 years later and he/she may have harboured a grudge against you for ruining his/her life.

Normally speaking, participation in just one lab does not mean enough in the scheme of things to trigger a descent into depression drugs etc. However, there may be more to it. I assume your actions were fully justified. You may have been called upon to comment on the suitability of this student for other activities. You were bound then, both legally and morally, to explain what transpired; he/she may have guessed that this is what caused their subsequent difficulties in obtaining opportunities.

Also, and this is a difficult one, you do have to think again if you could not have done more to help them at the time. You did have a duty of care, which would have required you to look past their bad behaviour and treat them as a person who needed your guidance (if only this would have meant referral to a counsellor). Particularly if drugs were involved back then.

In sum: you should reply, because this person is at the end of their tether and you are evidently a focal point (unless this looks like an email he/she sent to a few dozen other persons, in which case: ignore and alert security).

You should stand firm on your erstwhile grounds for removing him/her. You should acknowledge that he/she feels this was an important event in their lives, and offer your sympathies while insisting that their subsequent actions and decisions were not your responsibility. Remind them that any action on their part to cause further disruption will only exacerbate the problems in their life.

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    I agree that OP should consider their past treatment of the student carefully, for multiple reasons. But “you should reply” is much too strong a conclusion to draw: replying to a threatening letter like this could easily put OP and their family in more danger. – PLL Feb 26 at 16:57
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    This seems like dangerous advice because it seems to assume the email writer is fully rational, while the fact they sent the email 10 years after the fact taken together with the content of the email both imply the opposite, and a possible physical risk to OP. So I would strongly encourage escalating this to someone with professional expertise for advise before replying to the email. – bob Feb 26 at 17:25
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    Basically I don't think it's safe to guess the email writer's frame of mind or how they will respond to a response like this. If they have a "collector of grievances" personality/mental disorder (which I've read that some/many school/workplace shooters are), this type of response may well simply add to their perceived harm by OP, making things worse, not better. I am not a mental health professional btw. OP needs to get professional advice on this. – bob Feb 26 at 17:28
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    Suggesting that OP reply is possibly dangerous advice. The email might have been meant as a threat, and so escalation could put OP or their SO at risk. Any obligation that OP has to the ex-student is outweighed by this potential risk. Also, if the ex-student is fixated on OP, engaging with the ex-student might only encourage this unhealthy fixation, which is not what the ex-student needs. – PersonX Feb 26 at 17:35
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    If the letter is as threatening as y'all seem to assume it is, then yes, of course, it is an immediate matter for the police. However I do have some significant expertise and experience in such matters, and it seems more likely to me that it constitutes a befuddled cry for help. If the OP indicates the s/he is saddened by the turn of events and wishes they could have acted differently at the time, that might very well deescalate the situation. – Deipatrous Feb 26 at 17:44

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