Brain-eating cannibalism case raises questions about troubled students
Sunday , June 03, 2012 - 8:04 AM
BALTIMORE - Janelle Stewart said she was alarmed as she listened to the words about human sacrifice tumbling from the mouth of fellow Morgan State student Alexander Kinyua at a widely attended campus forum about hazing.
But the January outburst wouldn't be the only troubling incident involving Kinyua. He was thrown out of the ROTC program that same month after an incident that involved the destruction of property, and he was known to some on campus for carrying a machete and wearing tribal-inspired facepaint.
Those events earlier this year seem portentous now that Kinyua has been charged in back-to-back incidents of violence. He's accused of assaulting another student May 19 and of murdering 37-year-old Kujoe Bonsafo Agyei-Kodie six days later. Police say Kinyua chopped Agyei-Kodie to pieces and gorged on the man's heart and brain.
Now some are questioning whether there were signs the campus community missed, anything that could have foretold - and prevented - the violence. Recalling the January forum, Stewart, a Morgan senior, says, "An MSU official should have approached him afterward, and should have asked him what he was talking about."
Following tragedies like the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 or the beating death of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love in 2010, campuses across the country - including Morgan State - have developed intervention programs and threat assessment teams. They are designed to, among other things, spot the needle-in-a-haystack student who could be a danger to himself or others.
It's unclear if university officials questioned Kinyua's behavior before the May episodes. A Morgan spokesman said Kinyua was not flagged as a threat based on the January outburst. But even if he was being monitored, there may have been little the college could do, some campus mental health and security experts said.
"We don't have a crystal ball, so we can't predict future behavior very well. We can only look at the threat that current behavior might indicate," said Mary-Jeanne Raleigh, president of the American College Counseling Association and director of counseling services at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Other Maryland campuses have handled similar issues in recent years - and the responses have varied widely.
In 2010, for example, the Community College of Baltimore County suspended an Army veteran after he wrote a paper for English class describing graphic fantasies about killing. Though the student hadn't threatened anyone or faced any disciplinary problems, school spokesman Hope Davis said, "we have to be really cautious in this post-Virginia-Tech world."
Earlier this year, authorities at the University of Maryland, College Park were called to the dorm room of a student who was "shouting and acting out." They determined that he was "very stressed out" but not a threat to himself or others. No one took further action until a week later, when the student was arrested after posting specific threats of a campus shooting in Internet chat rooms.
Kinyua, the son of a Morgan physics lecturer, was considered a student in good academic standing. Faculty and students said he took his work seriously, and though he came across as slightly odd, he apparently had not sparked serious concerns.
That changed last month, when he was arrested and charged with assault for allegedly fracturing the skull and partially blinding a classmate with a baseball bat.
The May 19 incident may have been the first indicator the school had of Kinyua's potential for physical violence, and administrators took swift action, barring Kinyua from campus. The university also moved to expel him, officials have said.
Just days later, Agyei-Kodie was reported missing. His body was found in pieces last week in two separate locations, and police say Kinyua has confessed to the murder.
Raleigh said it appears that Kinyua may have had "a psychotic break or some very significant psychotic episode" that set in quickly this year.
"From where I'm sitting, it looks like Morgan State did exactly what they could," she said. "I know people would like to find blame, they would like to think someone would have been able to stop him, but it's so beyond the scope of normal behavior or what's considered appropriate."
Still, it's difficult to gauge Morgan's response, with little public information available. It's unknown whether anyone at the college knew of both the ROTC incident and Kinyua's outburst at the hazing forum, and connected the events as troubling. Even if someone was aware of both incidents or of other disturbing behavior spotted by classmates, it's not clear whether Kinyua should have been flagged as a potential threat.
Morgan spokesman Clinton Coleman said a single verbal outburst at a campus forum would not necessarily raise concerns.
"(I)f you've ever been at these things, people get up and say some wacky things, way off-the-wall stuff," Coleman said. "It's not that unusual, and you just ask yourself, 'Are they serious?' "
Universities have wrestled with questions of how to identify and intervene with potentially dangerous students since 2007, when Virginia Tech senior Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people on campus. Cho acted after years of disconcerting behavior that had been addressed piecemeal but never viewed as a complete portrait.
He behaved strangely with roommates, read disturbing poems in class, made unwanted advances toward female classmates and was hospitalized after expressing suicidal thoughts.
"Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these incidents, the university did not intervene effectively," a panel report on the Virginia Tech incident concluded. "No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots."
As part of the report, FBI profiler Roger Depue developed a list of warning signs for perpetrators of campus violence. They include paranoia, loss of temper, fascination with weapons and combat proficiency, difficulty complying with rules and fantasies of representing the oppressed.
Kinyua allegedly displayed at least some of those traits, according to police reports and interviews with fellow students - though apparently not at a level that drew widespread attention.
"When a cluster of indicators is present then the risk becomes more serious," Depue wrote. "A school threat assessment team upon learning about such a list of warning signs would be in a position to take immediate action."
But an episode here and there may never be connected into a bigger picture, said Gary Margolis. His Vermont-based consulting firm, Margolis and Healy Associates, used a federal grant to develop national threat assessment standards and a curriculum for colleges to follow.
After George Huguely V beat to death his University of Virginia girlfriend, Yeardley Love, students and faculty began to piece together warning signs that they might have caught earlier if they'd been watching for them. He had turned violent a half-dozen times before he attacked Love in a drunken rage, yet no one interceded to change his behavior. The university has since developed programs to encourage community intervention.
"Cooperating systems are critical; we've got to make sure that people are talking to each other," Margolis said. "You can't be in a silo."
Coleman said Morgan regularly reminds students and professors to report disturbing behavior to the campus counseling center, office of student services or Police Department.
"We try to tell students, 'If you see something, say something,' " he said. "But it's amazing how often they consider it snitching. They don't want to get a fellow student thrown out, so they're very reluctant."
Morgan has a threat assessment team that responds to student and faculty reports about troubling behavior. Coleman said the team might respond with an approach from counseling to removing the troubled student from campus; he did not know how often the team has been used.
The "mechanism is there" to deal with troubled students, he said. "But when do you pull the trigger? Sometimes, the answer only manifests itself in hindsight."
Part of the problem is that there's no good definition of the type of behavior that should spark concern, Margolis said. It's more a "we know it when we see it" scenario, unless there's a direct threat to safety.
Still, he said, "universities and colleges have a reasonable obligation and can be reasonably expected to have processes" to identify campus threats and promote safety.
(Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Alison Knezevich contributed to this report.)
)2012 The Baltimore Sun
Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Sign-up todayfor our E-Mail Newsletters.