April 11th, 2008
06:48 PM ET

Campus Rage: Mom saw warning signs in son

It started with an e-mail. In fact, it was the last of more than 600 e-mails CNN received in the wake of the Northern Illinois University shootings on Valentine’s Day. But this one stood out to me.


A frustrated and clearly anguished mother of a teenager was telling us she could relate to the massacre. That’s because her own son planned a school shooting when he was a high school junior in Idaho.

I immediately contacted Elaine Sonnen and spoke to her for at least an hour. I was immediately fascinated by her story - she saw the warning signs in her son, Richard, and was able to stop him from killing his classmates. But she still worried that he could be violent if he stopped taking his medication.

Still, there was little she could do because he was now over 18 and living on his own. She wanted to talk, but we knew the story would not be complete without hearing from Richard himself.

“Do you think he would talk to us?” I asked her. She agreed to call him and find out.

Within minutes, Richard was calling me to find out what the story was about. He told me he was interested in talking to me about his past, with the hope that other people his age could learn from his story.

This is one part of our hour-long Special Investigations Unit documentary, “Campus Rage.”

I also investigate a case where a senior in college is threatening suicide. He's depressed, he's stopped going to class and told a friend he bought a gun. The university found out about this troubled student but what happened next is being called into question.

Here’s a question for you: If a college finds out one of its students is depressed and is a threat to himself or others - do you think the college has the responsibility to share that information with that students’ parents? Or do you think the school should respect a student’s privacy and leave the parents out of the picture?  What do you think?

Watch a preview of the show

– Abbie Boudreau, Correspondent/CNN Special Investigations Unit

Program note: How do you stop a killer bent on revenge? Nearly a year after the Virginia Tech massacre, an all new CNN Special Investigations Unit examines the warning signs this weekend in "Campus Rage." Watch Friday and Saturday at 8p ET.

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Rhoda

    Taunting and bullying could be a recipe for school violence. I am an adult, i have a first hand experience of being an object of taunts, for reasons I don' t understand. I can tell you it is painful. It is in human nature to retaliate. Nobody is to be make fun of or be mimicked.

    April 14, 2008 at 3:58 pm |
  2. Marisa

    So sad, but true. Schools definitely need to identify at risk students. They need to refer them to urgent help from a professional. Schools resources are stretched too thin. More must be done. This is a must watch for parents and young people alike.

    April 13, 2008 at 11:52 pm |
  3. Christy

    I was attending college and I found out that my mom had called the counseling center and talked to my counselor. I was really mad and feel even now that my privacy was not respected. I wasn't suicidal or in danger. I don't think calling a kid's parents is the answer. How do they know that the parents are part of the problem in the first place. But I do believe that there should be a way to help these kids before something tragic happens. A way to coordinate information with the law if a student is getting in trouble.

    April 13, 2008 at 8:00 pm |
  4. Kathy

    I don't think the sickness that the person has would kill anyone. It would be the guns that the sick person uses, so then how do they get the guns?

    April 12, 2008 at 8:16 am |
  5. Michelle, Cincinnati

    My parents did not pay for my education. I paid for my education with the help of scholarships. I was out of my parents’ house at the age of 17. I worked. No one coddled me. As an adult if I had a serious medical situation or legal entanglement I would answer for it.

    When I was a young 17 year old girl and a naive freshman I did not want my OBGYN to call my parents. It would have been embarrassing for me if they knew that I was on birth control pills. Just as then, I still would not want my parents to control my life.

    We have authorities to handle adults. Doctors do not call parents when a young adult has cancer, so then why call the parents over a psychiatric problem.

    April 11, 2008 at 9:52 pm |
  6. Gary Brown

    Privacy policies are made to protect the keeper of the keys in our education system. so they can do damage control to protect themselves and the University that pays their wages and gives them a way of life.
    Gary Brown

    April 11, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  7. Gary Brown

    Having talked to sudents in the past and heard about the bullying and how socialist teachers and proffesors tell vulnerable and mentally on the edge students that there is no hope for this country and this society. These self lothing profferors and educaters. don't understand the real world and what reaqlly makes life tick. These same educaters are useless to provide help and understanding for the weak and susceptible in our society. They are to self centered and and beleive they are above it all. If students show any sign of being troubled. They really want nothig to do with it and they hope it will just go away. They really don't want this type of thing in their own lives. Bullies ,Bully, the weak are used as entertainment for the ignorant and over bearing. educaters dismiss the weak and cater to the trouble maker and bullies and hope they will just drop out are go away. When rage begets death these so called educaters then scramble to dot the I's and cross the T's to cover their own rears and white wash the event and oush it down the road and hope someone else will handle it. Things will not change as long as socialist education and educaters cover their eyes and wait for their pentions to kick in. God help us, because the education system isn't.

    Gary Brown

    April 11, 2008 at 9:14 pm |
  8. J.Lynn

    I think that all privacy policies should go out the window when it comes to shooting, people should automatically be checked on

    April 11, 2008 at 8:39 pm |
  9. Simone

    College students should be treated as adults. In real life, when an adult gets into trouble, we don't call up their mommy, we turn them into the authorities. If a college student is found to be a threat, then authorities should be notified and just as any other case it should be handled as discretely and with as much confidentiality as possible. I have a cousin who has schizophrenia, and a few years ago he stopped taking his medication and got out of control and his parents tried to handle it on their own but there came a point where they just had no choice but to turn the matter over to authorities because they didn't know what else to do. If colleges simply share the matter with parents, then they could basically put the fate of other students lives into the troubled student's parents hands... and parents are just regular everyday people... thus not equipped to handle such situations... especially if they are biased and handle it with denial.

    April 11, 2008 at 8:25 pm |
  10. Annie Kate

    I have a daughter in college and if she were depressed and threatening suicide I would expect the school to contact me; after all, even though she is of legal age, I'm the one they contact to pay the bill. IF I care enough to pay the bill for her education then surely I care enough to know if she is having a serious problem that threatens her life.

    I can see why parents are not told some information for the student's privacy but depression and suicidal tendencies should not be part of the information not shared with the parents. A young adult with serious depression needs all the support they can get – surely the parents that have been the base of their life for so many years should know so they can provide the concern, caring, and support that the student needs. That caring and support could make a difference and I would want to know so I could give it instead of mourning the lost chance should the student actually carry out their threats of suicide.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    April 11, 2008 at 8:11 pm |
  11. Tammy

    Legally because of Tarasoff v. CA Board of Regents a counselor has to contact a parent. Every person who's ever taken a counseling, student development, or higher ed law class knows this one. You're a major lawsuit waiting to happen if you know a student is in danger to him/herself and/or others and do nothing to stop it (even suspicion has to be taken seriously). If these are the questions you're asking, I'm interested in seeing how moronic this program is going to be.

    April 11, 2008 at 8:10 pm |
  12. Diane

    I think that if a college student sees another behaving in a way that they think could lead to him/her acting out and hurting or even killing someone on campus that they should definitely get in touch with the proper authorities and have them look into it. It is better to be safe than sorry I say!

    This SIU seems really interesting. Looking forward to hearing what Richard went through and has to say now.

    Diane, Ga.

    April 11, 2008 at 6:57 pm |