These are Very Sad Times

Category: News

Last week, I was teaching my seminar when a man walked into the room. I was sitting with my back turned toward the door, across from me sat my students who were actively engaging the week’s assigned reading. As the door shut behind him, the man stood there looking at us for what felt like an eternity. In reality, it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but during that time my heart stopped. It was after 5pm. The university administrative offices were closed and in those few seconds I was terrified that I might be alone on this floor with my students and a stranger who may want to do us harm. Who was this person? Why was he in my classroom? What do I do? I finally found my words, “This is a class,” I said, and the student immediately apologized and stumbled out of the room.

These are sad times. I do not feel safe in my own classroom. And, yes, my emotions are high after Parkland, but for me this is about more than the latest mass shooting. Last year, Georgia’s governor Nathan Deal passed a conceal carry bill which allows students at Georgia’s state institutions to carry their guns into the classrooms. The bill prohibits students from carrying their guns into the dorms or sporting events, but my classroom is fair game. The logic (if you can call it that) behind the bill is that students have the right to defend themselves in an active shooter situation. At an open information session before the bill went into effect, a faculty member asked, “So should I start wearing a bullet proof vest to work everyday?” The response … “That is your decision.” These are very sad times.

My institution has not required that I take an active shooter training course. Nor have they instructed faculty on best practices in an active shooter situation. Scanning through my institution’s Work Life Balance courses, I find a preparedness course. It is listed below a course on stress relief and another on yoga. When I try to register for the preparedness course, I am informed that there are no future trainings scheduled. A google search of active shooter training on my university’s website, produces a link to the police department. Apparently, if I want training I should contact them and ask for it. These are very sad times.

So much in the media has focused recently on who is to blame for the Parkland shooting. The school resource officer who didn’t defend the children. The FBI who didn’t properly follow up on tips from concerned citizens that this individual was troubled. The NRA wants to blame background checks. But, as an educator, I find all of these approaches problematic. More than once I’ve found myself face-to-face with an angry student. One who appears to be mentally unstable. Or who is under extreme stress or who is exhibiting behavior that is concerning. I don’t know a single educator who hasn’t met a student like this. How are we supposed to know where the danger is versus simply young adults struggling with their emotions? People keep talking about mental illness like it’s a rare disease that we can easily spot and contain. It’s not. The reality is that one in five people struggle with some form of mental illness in this country. Mental illness is especially prevalent among those under the age of 25. Still most of those suffering from mental illness, even if they express a desire to shoot others, never will. Professionals still don’t fully understand what leads some under these circumstances to violence and others not. Teachers don’t know how to spot the dangers. Mental health professionals don’t always know how to spot the dangers. What’s more, mental health services in higher education are seriously underfunded. Students struggling emotionally wait weeks (if not months) to get an appointment with a health service provider.

But 17 people died! These kids have lost their lives and their classmates have lost their innocence. We are here again. When do we learn? When do we fix this? Yes, we should do more to support mental health. But banning assault rifles is a vital part of what should be a multi-pronged approach to ending this problem. We have a lot of work to do to make our schools safe. But until we learn more about mental illness and the circumstances that lead to mass shootings, assault rifles have to go.