Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reflections on the Virginia Tech murders

Of course, everyone is posting about the shooting at Virginia Tech. Dean Dad wrote the earliest post about the security issues facing a campus and the limits to what is possible. Profgrrrrl just processed her raw emotions, the same ones I think we all share, and Aspazia joins her and bemoans the voices of the media and President Bush. Tenured Radical asked more poignant questions about how prepared we are as professors to protect our students in this kind of situation.

I can't imagine the sadness, fears, and concerns of the students and teachers at Tech, but three of my school experiences are shaping my feelings and reflections on the posts listed above.

The first was a shooting at my grad college (when I was off-campus). The shooter went right by a coffee shop where I had been 24 hours earlier. My partner called me as soon as she heard, and I remember her relief that I was at home. Several people died, and the shooter, a graduate student, was found to have longstanding mental health diagnoses. It was surreal, and I remember driving by the route he took while shooting people near and on campus. As someone whose office was not close to his path, and who studied in a different major, the shooting quickly became very removed to me. Eventually, it just became a trial in the paper. I am sure this is a defense mechanism, but it has worked quite well for me. So well, in fact, that it took me a while to remember it when the Virginia Tech shooting occurred.

The second event occurred when I was a new assistant professor. We had a student whose behavior scared us. This student had taken a real liking to me, and she stopped by to see me very often. She would tell me things that provoked great concern about her mental fitness, but she said nothing that could be conceived as a clear threat. When we met with the student to inform her that she was not allowed in the major, we had police ready in the next room.

That situation was the first in which I had seen professors use the campus police to insure protection. While we were all a little embarrassed to call them, they were very reassuring.

Provocatively, spiting our decision, she signed up to take an elective class I was offering in the summer. I was anxious all semester, as she sat and seethed in class, but I tried to act like everything was normal and she was just another student. She finally talked to me the last day of class, telling me that while I was okay with her, she was angry at the other faculty and planned to seek a job where she could embarrass them in the future. I tried to explain that the decision not to admit her was shared by all of us, and that she could do well in another major, but she wasn't buying. It was a relief when the class ended.

There was little we could do about the student, in terms of her mental health, and we knew it. It was frustrating.

The third incident occurred when I was in another professional position. I was teaching a class one evening when the tornado siren went off. We had just taken a break in class, the windows to the classroom were open, and we heard the siren clearly. We were the only class in the building at the time. After a second, wherein we all just looked at each other, I snapped into "teacher mode" and told everyone to move quickly downstairs and into the hallway, as all of the classrooms had windows. (As a newer faculty member, I had never learned that there was a tornado plan for the building, which actually had a basement.) We sat off to the side of the hallway of the building, which had doors on all four sides (one at the end of each side of the very long hallway and one in the front and back).

We all used our cell phones to find out about the threat, and we passed the information we learned back and forth. Once the "storm" passed, we checked again to see if there were other storms in our area. We found out that there was a second squall line about 15-20 minutes away. We discussed whether students should leave, and some who lived very close by decided to go. Others, who lived farther away, decided to stay. I stayed with those who wanted to wait the storm out.

When the next round of storms came through, we could tell it was different. The storm was louder, the winds were stronger, and the air pressure just felt different. At one point, all four doors to the outside flew open and slammed shut. The students and I all looked at each other, kind of stunned. We stayed connected to our cell phones and when everything got quiet again and our friends and family on the phone told us it was clear, we made a decision to go home.

The next day, we found out that a tornado had touched down nearby, destroying several commercial buildings, and a very large tree had landed right in front of the building in which we had been hunkered down. Once I relayed the story to the administration, we had an email and memo that laid out the tornado plan for the building.

It is scary, looking back on it, how little knowledge I had as the "responsible person" during the tornado alert. I am reassured, as TR should be, that I felt comfortable taking control, even with my limited knowledge. It also highlighted for me how important cell phones are in a moment of crisis, a message we see in all of these school shootings as well. Our school is one of many that offers an emergency alert system for all people associated with the school, using individuals' cell phones. I would bet that more schools will be adopting this technology.

When I look back on my own situations, I feel relief and gratititude. Mostly, I am left feeling lucky that each of these situations had not turned out much worse. Those of us who live and work on campuses are part of large communities, and we have all of the same problems and concerns of larger communities. Hopefully, disaster preparedness teams, positive connections to law enforcement, and good training in recognizing and assissting students with mental health issues can help lower our risk and better prepare us for these kinds of crises. But, we can only do so much to protect ourselves and one another. Blessings on all of us.

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