Monday, January 10, 2011

What can we do?

I don't know. The whole "general public" response I've seen to the Arizona shootings has me very sad, and thinking that "minimal contact with the public is the way to go in the future."

Lots of people are blaming the Tea Party for what he did. Or Sarah Palin. Or, some are saying, if you read between the lines, "This is what you get with untrammeled free speech." (And dammit, if this shooter idiot gets people calling for modifications to the First Amendment...)

My interpretation? The shooter was unhinged. Dangerously unhinged and he probably should have been in a hospital.

Jared Loughner's college days (And the comments on that article are saddening; they are the ones that make me want to hide from many of my fellow humans). (A perhaps more balanced article, and without commentators frothing at the mouth, is here.)

I don't know. As much as I advocate individual liberty (and individual responsibility), I also think there needs to be some means to require people who are spiraling into the sort of unreality Loughner wound up in to get help - or at least go to a place where they are unlikely to cause harm. I know, there are commitment proceedings, but I think the family has to be on-board for that, and apparently Loughner's family was pretty unconcerned about what was going on with him.

This is a somewhat unaddressed issue on college campuses. There are lots of students with different problems. Even beyond students with diagnosed mental illnesses, there are people all along the spectrum of personality and interaction, from people who can be utterly grating and rude and difficult to people who will smile and shake your hand while planning how they are going to hurt your reputation, to people who are so painfully shy that you can't get them to even say their name in class.

And I know - probably more than most people, I find myself distressed by the passive-aggressive types, or the backstabbers, or the people who seem to enjoy being rude. But it makes it harder for a group to function. I've seen how one rude or nasty person can take a group from being able to work well together to a group full of people who are all suspicious of each other, scared of speaking up, and not able to accomplish things. One person with a really bad attitude can poison an entire classroom. One person who flies off the handle easily can close down discussion and make people afraid to speak up. And the painfully shy people can become even more withdrawn and intimidated by someone who is obnoxious.

And that's just with people within the realm of "reasonable" behavior. Based on what Loughner's instructors and fellow students have said, he went way beyond that, to the point where people were threatened. And it took a long time (comparatively) to have him "invited off" campus.

I participate in a couple online forums for college profs, and I've heard other stories. A young woman prof being "stalked" (to the point where the person waited for her outside her evening class) by a former student who thought she should be dating him. Profs who have students shout over them, or talk over them, or sing during class. Profs where students brought large knives to class, took them out very showily at the start of class, and set them on the desk in front of them. Students who make what could possibly be interpreted as threats.

On a campus I knew, a student once threatened the life of a chemistry prof after he failed the prof's class for the second time. And then the student put his hand through a plate-glass window. The campus security people escorted him off, and he was essentially told, "If we see you on campus again, you will be arrested." Of course, a few years later, he was allowed back to complete his degree. I am not sure if he had to show proof of any kind of anger-management treatment or anything...

It's a balance that's tough to make. On the one hand, there's a lot of pressure to "mainstream" students. And it's unfair to someone who may be fighting against, say, depression, to tell them, "No, we do not want you on our campus." And people who've had problems in the past who make an effort to fight through them, they deserve a second chance.

But on the other hand: few profs have much training in psychology or counseling. It's hard to know how to react to someone with anger problems, or someone who seems a bit out-of-touch with reality. (And another thing: a lot of us profs have personality oddities ourselves. I know I'm easily bullied and intimidated.)

And the professors and other students should have some of an expectation of being able to come to class and not feel intimidated all the time - or worse, as one of Loughner's instructors said, keep checking over their shoulders to be sure a gun is not being aimed at their backs. There should not be a "hostile workplace" and unfortunately, sometimes that is at odds with the ideas of more open admissions.

One of the problems is that some mental illnesses (classicly, schizophrenia) tend to show up at that stage of life - late teens, early 20s. A student who may have been fine before he or she left school may begin to deteriorate on campus. And also, students are more on their own - you might have an RA if you live in the dorm, but RAs (and roommates) vary in their level of involvedness. (Actually, there is a lot of "benign neglect" where someone will be absent several days, you will ask someone you thought was one of their friends what's going on, and the "friend" will shrug and say they don't know. We had an instance on campus of a young woman disappearing for several days - later, it turned out she had gone to visit a new boyfriend - but had told no one where she was going, and the campus police were acting as if it were a kidnapping.)

Also, there's an attitude on a lot of campuses - this may be an outgrowth of PC - of "it's your bag, man," where people may not "call" someone on troubling behavior because, you know, what's right and wrong for YOU might not be so for other people. And on college campuses, there is readier access to alcohol and drugs, which can further affect someone who already has some problems with brain chemistry. And students who ARE on some kind of medication, sometimes decide they're OK to go off of it - or without someone like a parent to remind them, they don't take it. (We had a case here of someone on anti-seizure medications deciding they were OK to go off them. They weren't.)

And a lot of these things - taking medications you are prescribed, avoiding stuff (like drugs) that might mess you up, going for help if you feel you need it - are personal-responsibility things. Though maybe in the cases of breaks-with-reality, you can't count on a person to be able to take responsibility. I don't know.

I've never had a student who truly scared me in class. I did have one, once, who came to my office hours and yelled at me over something and got what I considered to be inappropriately angry over a small issue. I called his advisor (fortunately I knew who it was) and told him because - and this kind of chills me now to think of it - but what I was thinking was "there needs to be a paper trail just in case, so people don't go on the news later saying, 'I never knew he could get violent.'"

Fortunately, nothing came of it. The advisor told me the student had "anger issues" and that he knew he did and that the student was "working on it." Later on the student dropped out of school.

I have had students who disrupted class - mainly in the form of running commentary that they thought was funny. It's grating, but it's not scary the way someone who would clearly seem to be detached from reality would be. I'm not sure how I'd deal with someone who told me my class was "illegal," or who yelled at me in class. I'd probably be a bit of a coward and excuse myself, and call Campus Security from the nearest phone. (Though in some classes, my Conservation Guys would probably have my back, and they'd either get the person to shut up, or THEY'D pull out their (technically disallowed in class) cell phone and call security for me). I don't know. I suppose if I really felt the person was a threat, I'd dismiss class and let the students leave. I don't know if that would help or hurt, but maybe it would at least get the "innocent bystanders" out of the room if there really was going to be a problem.

It makes me sad that I even have to have these kinds of contingency plans in my mind. (And I suspect that's going to be our new duty this spring: "Come up with a detailed plan of how you will protect your students from someone in class who is a threat because they are out of touch with reality." When of course, it's not our responsibility for having admitted the person in the first place, or kept them on campus.)

I honestly don't know what the administration's reaction would be if one of us came to them with a concern that a student seemed to have the potential to be a threat in class. Would we be taken seriously? Would we be put off with platitudes? Would we be accused of being unfriendly to them? And how long would it take to have someone who was a problem removed from our classroom? (Or would we be told to "suck it up"?).

I will admit that it scares me a little bit to think that there are other people like Loughner out there, with the potential to become violent as they become more detached from reality, and that their family and co-workers (if they have them) and friends (if they have them) don't seem to put any pressure on them to get taken care of. (Or maybe people like Loughner intimidate those close to them enough that the people are really afraid of pressuring for them to get help.)

(But really: people need to dial back on the fitting-his-actions-into-their-pet-theories-about-politics. Apparently this guy had no coherent political beliefs that could drive what he did; he was detached from reality. And I know people who have some pretty vehement political beliefs - on either side of the aisle - who would be horrified at the thought of using violence as a way of getting their desired positions enstated.

Another thought: when this first came out, before we knew much about the shooter, my reaction was, "Forget any supposed political affiliation; this guy is nothing but a terrorist. People who kill innocent unsuspecting people in the names of advancing some agenda are just terrorists." Is he still a terrorist if he was arguably not in control of his actions because of his mental illness?

And the biggest question, and the one I wish I had a good answer to: how do we prevent other people who may have the same issues as this shooter did from becoming violent, and how do we guide them to help that will allow them to have a more fulfilled life?

1 comment:

Kate P said...

I think you pretty much said everything I was thinking, regarding identification and dealing with mental illness before it gets dangerous. I don't know what the answers are to those questions, either, and it's troubling.