Responding to a student in crisis

Ever since Heath Avery was sentenced to nearly six years in prison last month for stabbing fellow student Andrew Richardson, Portland State has been scrutinized for its handling of Avery prior to the assault.

Ever since Heath Avery was sentenced to nearly six years in prison last month for stabbing fellow student Andrew Richardson, Portland State has been scrutinized for its handling of Avery prior to the assault. 

Jeremy Phillips, a junior at PSU and a resident of the dormitory near the place where Richardson was stabbed, said he remembers Avery well.

“He left a big impression on me,” Phillips said. “He slept in the lobby all day long, passed out in the middle of everything. He seemed

aggravated a lot.” 

Before the stabbing, students and staff filed three complaints with the Campus Public Safety Office, citing Avery’s odd behavior.

On Aug. 14, 2010, Avery stabbed Richardson outside Montgomery Court, where they both lived, and was arrested by Portland police.

Avery was sentenced to a maximum of

5.8 years in prison and three years of parole on Jan. 11, around the time that college dropout Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. Avery’s story—the trajectory of a troubled student falling through the cracks at a large university—is somewhat similar to Loughner’s, prompting the question of what could have been done to prevent the assault.

In high school, Avery was a typical student, according to Inez Newbold, a secretary at Lawrenceville High School in Avery’s hometown of Lawrenceville, Ill. She said that he had no disciplinary record.

Through church, Newbold had known Avery and his family since he was a child.

“He was always a nice boy, never front-and-center, but I never saw anything abnormal,” she said. “He was happy. He took part in things.” 

Avery’s father suffered from heart problems and died when Avery was in elementary school. He was then left to care for his mother, who was bound to a wheelchair due to severe rheumatoid arthritis. She died before his senior year of high school.

Newbold said that Avery was “lost and bewildered” at his mother’s death.

Newbold and others in Lawrenceville were shocked to hear of the stabbing.

“I was dumbfounded,” Newbold said.

After high school, Avery attended Vincennes University in Indiana between 2006 and 2008. Reports released by the VU police also indicate that Avery’s record was clean.

However, Avery’s behavior took a turn for the bizarre at PSU. CPSO records show that he harassed staff members in the elevator and was cited as a “student of concern.” 

About 10 minutes before the stabbing took place last summer, a CPSO officer who wished Avery a good night noted that his response was odd.

“It can’t be now,” Avery replied before

walking off. 

Richardson said that he spoke with Nachel Glen, a resident adviser at Montgomery, about Avery’s “strange character” in July.

Glen refused to comment on Avery’s behavior.

In the September hearing that determined that Avery was capable of aiding and assisting in his defense, an evaluation by psychologist Alexandar Duncan found that Avery was suffering from a psychotic disorder “not otherwise specified.” This is the category given to psychotic illnesses that are not discernable as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. 

The onset of Avery’s illness was sudden, according to the evaluation.

“This is something new that is coming on in his life,” said defense attorney Bryan Francesconi.

The development of mental illnesses or depression during a transition to a new university is not uncommon, according to Scott Reichlin, director of Forensic Evaluation Services at the Oregon State Hospital.

“All of the sudden, a lot of your support is gone. You’re exposed to a whole new set of expectations,” Reichlin said of college environments. “The social network might be completely different. You may be in a place where you don’t know anybody or have friends.”

PSU’s Dean of Student Life Michele Toppe refused to comment on Avery’s case specifically, but she said that a collective called the C.A.R.E Team (Coordination Assessment Response Education) combines the resources of different officers around campus to provide a safety net for troubled students.

“Our mission is to be a safe place for students in crisis,” Toppe said.

After the Avery stabbing, a meeting was held in Montgomery Court to generate ideas for increasing the safety of the campus.

“The group had a good discussion on the question of how to increase the number of reports that are submitted to CPSO or through the conduct system so behavior that makes people feel threatened is documented,” Toppe said.?