Was Portland State right in expelling student as safety risk? The student says no; the university says yes
July 25, 2012
by Bryan Denson
Henry Liu was a promising graduate student in Portland State University's conflict resolution program. He had excellent grades, with law school on the horizon. But his academic career swiftly derailed last spring after he confided to a classmate that he was upset with a faculty member and mentioned guns in the same conversation.
Liu's classmate told campus police that her friend felt a lot of hatred and said of one assistant professor, "He could get shot." Liu, a gun enthusiast, denies making any such threat and says he never intended to harm anyone. Yet Portland State officials took swift and decisive action.
Less than 24 hours after Liu spoke to his classmate, campus police put him in handcuffs and he landed in a psychiatric ward. PSU officials barred him from school property and put out a public flier with his photo that included this line: "If you see Mr. Liu on campus, or if you have any significant concerns about your immediate personal safety, please notify law enforcement officials by calling 911." Last month, PSU expelled him.
The 33-year-old Astoria resident hasn't been charged with a crime and has no history of violence. A psychiatric report concluded that he poses no danger to himself or anyone else. At the time of his arrest, Liu's interest in firearms had waned because owning guns seemed to conflict with his growing passion for conflict resolution.
He now finds himself considering legal action against the university, saying he was harmed by school officials who wildly overreacted to the allegations and profiled him -- in his words -- as a "crazy Asian shooter."
So what went wrong at PSU? Did anything go wrong?
Liu's case shows how a student can get caught up in a post-Virginia Tech world and how universities find themselves in dicey territory as they balance student security with free speech rights.
The way U.S. colleges respond to any hint of a gun threat took a dramatic turn five years ago, when a mentally ill Virginia Tech senior, Seung-Hui Cho, went on a shooting rampage at the school, killing 32 people before committing suicide.
Since then, campus administrators across the United States have grown hypervigilant to the point where concerns about gun-related speech have spiked into a state of alarm, says William Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education.
"We are seeing an increased sensitivity to any behavior that could possibly be construed as aberrant, threatening or evidence of some larger personality disorder," Creeley says. "As a result of this broad focus on unusual behavior, we're seeing lots of normal, protected speech swept into the dragnet and used as reason for investigation or even punishment."
Here's what led to Liu's expulsion, based on The Oregonian's interviews with Liu, his accuser, his lawyer and campus police, as well as police records, a psychiatric report and other documents.
Walking with a classmate
On the evening of April 19, Liu walked a classmate to her car after class. What happened next remains in dispute.
Liu's classmate told police he vented loudly about the conflict resolution program and its chairman, Robert Gould, saying, "I'm about ready to stick a .45 in his ass." She said that Liu had complained about his chronic back problem and sleeplessness, and that he was going target shooting that weekend, according to a campus police report.
Liu disputes his classmate's characterizations of the conversation. He says he confided his deep disappointment in PSU's conflict resolution program and his unhappiness with assistant professor Stan Sitnik, who had given him a B-plus instead of the A he thought he deserved. But Liu says he never raised his voice and never mentioned Gould.
(Although Liu's 55-year-old classmate is named in public records and gave a brief interview for this story, The Oregonian is withholding her name at the request of PSU officials, who say that naming her might have a chilling effect on others taking safety concerns to campus authorities.)
About 3 a.m. the next day, Liu's classmate encouraged him by email to seek counseling or mediation for his anger. Liu was asleep and didn't reply.
At some point, she reported his comments to PSU authorities. At roughly 9 a.m., an official in the dean of student life's office phoned campus police to report the comments attributed to Liu. The police report described the incident as "inappropriate behavior."
At 1:38 p.m., two campus police officers, joined by a pair of Portland cops, walked into a brick building on Southwest Clay Street, one block from the PSU campus, and knocked on the door of Apartment 43. Liu answered, shocked to see a group of officers on his landing, and stepped outside to talk.
Portland Officer James Crooker asked Liu if he had any guns inside his one-bedroom apartment.
"No," he said.
Liu, who had four firearms in the apartment, would later explain that he wasn't truthful for a reason: He saw police ushering people out of the building, and he hoped to defuse the situation rather than scare his neighbors or the officers.
Police told Liu they wanted to talk about statements he had allegedly made about harming staff members at PSU. When Liu denied having made any threats, Crooker asked again if he had any guns inside. Liu looked at campus police Sgt. Joseph Schilling, who said, "Where are the guns, Henry?"
Liu invited police inside and told them they could find two semiautomatic handguns in a locked footlocker in his closet. Police found both guns -- a .22-caliber Smith & Wesson and a .45-caliber Springfield -- and handcuffed their suspect. Liu says he heard one officer, noting the .45, ask, "You didn't say you were going to stick this up somebody's ass?"
Liu denied making the comment, and he told them where to find two other firearms, including a Daniel Defense M4 carbine, a semiautomatic version of a combat rifle used by U.S. troops. None of the guns were illegal, and none were loaded. Liu had bought two of them -- one equipped with pink grips -- for his fiance.
Officers poking through Liu's place found loaded magazines, boxes of cartridges, survival gear stuffed into packs, along with extra food and a QuikClot sponge designed to quickly stop bleeding. Liu also had shooting glasses and ear protection, a first aid kit, a flashlight, wet naps, and a Bear Grylls survival knife.
The gear looked suspicious to police, as if Liu were planning a hasty departure, and, according to Liu, they kept using terms such as "tactical" and "military." But as Liu later explained, he's an avid camper with an abundance of gear, including a huge stock of ramen noodles his mother bought him at Costco.
Liu recalls police asking about his state of mind, wondering if he intended to follow up on his threats. He says he kept telling them it was all a terrible misunderstanding, but he felt as if they were trying to coerce a confession.
The impasse ended this way: Liu voluntarily agreed to be evaluated at Oregon Health & Science University. Police walked him out to a patrol car in lounge pants, his hair a mess. "I had my head down in shame," he recalls.
Liu says he didn't realize he would have to spend six days in a psychiatric unit at OHSU before he was released with a clean bill of mental health.
PSU's Student Conduct Committee, composed of students and faculty, heard the complaint against Liu over two days last month.
The panel took testimony from Liu's accuser and Sgt. Schilling. Liu didn't appear in person because he wasn't allowed on campus. He testified by speakerphone in the office of his attorney, Michael E. Rose.
Rose wasn't permitted to speak during the proceeding. Students can have advisers at the hearings, says PSU spokesman Scott Gallagher, but only as consultants, not as participants in the proceedings, which aren't intended to be judicial in nature.
"The fact that the two witnesses against (Liu) were sitting in the room with the committee, and Henry was only allowed to participate by telephone -- invisible, and highly ignorable -- really cuts at the root of any notion of a fair hearing," Rose says.
On June 20, Liu got notice that he had been expelled for violating two provisions of the code of student conduct: "Furnishing false/misleading information," and "Possible health/safety threat."
Liu isn't the first student expelled for making credible threats on campus, Gallagher says. School officials declined to cite the precise number of expulsions, saying the information could possibly violate the privacy of other students.
Liu has filed for an administrative review of PSU's expulsion. He and his lawyer will wait for the outcome of that review before planning their next step, Rose says.
The circumstances confronting PSU officials last April were serious, says Public Safety Chief Phillip Zerzan. They had a heavily armed student -- with survival gear and hundreds of rounds of ammo -- who lived spitting distance from campus and was accused of threatening faculty members.
With all those factors in play, he says, PSU took reasonable and compassionate steps to keep Liu and the campus community safe.
Zerzan's job is to keep the university safe, but he also recognizes that students and faculty have free-speech rights.
"It is a difficult balance, and I think we were responsible," he says. "This was not a rush to judgment. ... How defensible would it be if we didn't put out the warning and he came back and shot up the school?"
Liu feels betrayed.
"My takeaway is that I was wrongly dismissed from the university based on hearsay and conclusions that weren't supported by facts," he says. "My name's been smeared, and so much has been taken from me. My future is uncertain. And I miss school."