"[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.
Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.