I went back and forth on this. Deleting and rewriting. I’m still not happy with this, but here we go. Since last week’s tragic school shooting, I have once again been surprised by how many people are blaming the school, the students, and the teachers for this event. I want to talk a bit today about what I have seen in education regarding our efforts to prevent this kind of tragedy and to intervene when students, staff, or faculty demonstrate concerning or harmful behaviors or actions (to themselves or others). This is kind of all over the place and mostly focused on higher education, but I understand that a lot people outside of education don’t really know what is going on here and what we are doing.
Nikolas Cruz existed in a gray area that we struggle with daily. A student who exhibits troubling behavior, but hasn’t done anything that has compelled someone to press charges. He was also a kid during most of these behaviors, and I think a lot of us (including those of us in higher ed) want to give young people every chance and resource to be successful and turn it around. It has been reported that he engaged in cutting, racial slurs, depression, drawing hate symbols, ADHD, he was creepy on social media, and shared plans to buy a gun. None of these things are illegal. None of these things would have gotten him on a list that a background check would have pinged. The Department of Child and Families found him to be a low risk.
With that said, I also believe it is important to emphatically state that when it comes to mental health you cannot force someone to seek treatment, get counseling, or take medication (unless they are committed). And, even then, you might be able to force them to swallow pills in the hospital, but you cannot make someone care about treatment or fully engage in it. States have their own laws surrounding involuntary psychiatric holds – committing someone against their will to a psychiatric facility.
In California, you can be committed for up to 72 hours for evaluation if you are a danger to yourself, a danger to others, or gravely disabled through what is commonly called a “5150.” We don’t have a week go by without at least one student in our residence halls being committed through a 5150. The huge majority of the time, it is due to a student expressing suicidal ideation, someone finding evidence of another student planning to take their own life, or a student actually attempting to do so. We have a wonderful police department on campus that responds quickly to these situations to get students medical help and to provide support. If another student reports it or suspects a student is a danger to themselves, then we act on it just the same. That action may be through a 5150 depending on the urgency and severity of the situation, or it may be through other resources we have to help students. And we can get them psychologically tested, but if they won’t accept or participate in treatment or counseling, then we cannot force them and we cannot kick them out of school refusing.
We have a harder time supporting students who show a tendency or desire to cause harm to others. Just because someone does something actually scary enough to have them committed or arrested, doesn’t meant that anything punitive can be done about it. Sure, we can always dismiss students from school for not following our student code of conduct, but kicking an already angry student out of school is a truly scary prospect.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School expelled the shooter, but that didn’t stop him from coming back to kill. Virginia Tech knew that Seung-Hui Cho was “intimidating” and had a “mean streak,” but he never actually never made any overt threats. His professors were scared of him, he claimed that he was getting counseling, but he never did. Virginia Tech was in an impossible situation because it is unfortunately very difficult to kick someone out of school because they’re being scary or an asshole. The majority of the time, no one is surprised when they learn the identity of the shooter.
At my university, we have a Behavioral Intervention Team that works with students who are displaying concerning or dangerous behaviors. This enables us to centralize the information about a student who is struggling, to coordinate resources, and to give people a consistent place to report their concerns. Our hope is that we are able to intervene before the student actually carries through with hurting themselves or others. But, again, outside of involuntary commitment, we can’t force anyone to get treatment or take their medication. We give them the resources and the access, but they have to participate.
I can’t even count the number of students that my office has sent to that team because their correspondence or interaction with us was troubling. We also have a Critical Response Team that meets each week so that we can talk about issues we are seeing on campus and to plan for situations that may negatively impact student well-being. We have numerous resources including crisis managers who directly help students facing a wide variety of challenges, but we can’t force a student to meet with them. And if you’re narcissistic, fame seeking, or feeling aggrieved with your school, then you are probably not going to think you need treatment or counseling from the people you already despise.
We can do everything we can to identify students and to get them to the resources we have, but if they choose not to take advantage, then we get stuck in a truly difficult situation. What I mentioned above are the resources we have for current students. Outside of calling the police, we do not have a legal way to deal with or intervene with people who are not part of our campus community. And if the person is not committing a crime, then the police can’t do anything either.
There is an older man who is a convicted felon who has emailed, called, and written me over 500 times in the past year. His communications are aggressive, angry, and unsettling. He wants to get into graduate school, yet lacks the minimum GPA to apply. Not only is that not my fault, but I also can’t decide who is accepted to school. I have told him this 500 times, yet he persists. He also shows up campus and in our building frequently. We are a public institution, and he has every right to be here. He scares me a lot. I’ve informed our police department, but he hasn’t actually done anything illegal, so other than them being aware, we just have to deal with him. This doesn’t even count as harassment by the way.
Every day I worry that he is going to show up with a gun. Do you know who he will see first when he walks into our office? Our student assistants. We have an armed security guard, but what are the chances that he harms a student before that security guard can be there? He is one of many former students or random people from the community who haunt our campus and scare people. Some of them have waited out in parking lots to confront professors and some have burst into offices to yell at employees. There is a constant undercurrent of fear here (and everywhere I have worked) because it is too easy to shoot up a school because you feel somehow wronged.
To try and prepare for this, we are installing better locks on doors, reviewing systems that recognize the sound of gun shots so that the police can be notified more quickly (although with what money we are going to buy this with I sure don’t know), upgrading our campus alert system, increasing our security officers, and doing more planning. We are investing in mental health resources, student crisis managers, peer health educators, and information aimed at encouraging people to report concerning behavior. These things all require money. And we can do all of this perfectly, yet someone can still walk in here with an AR-15 and kill a lot of people.
I continue to see people give a blanket “mental health” reason for why mass shootings happen. Do I think that you’re having your best mental health day when you go into a school and shoot your classmates with an AR-15? Of course not. But when you say this is a mental health issue, what do you mean? What is the answer? Nikolas Cruz was never charged with anything despite all of the times that police were called to his home, so there is nothing to be found in a background check. Our systems are not designed to catch disturbing behavior or early warning signs. His mother believed he was taking his medication and getting the treatment he needed. And yes, someone called the FBI tip line, but that is a small office of people who handle over 2,000 tips a month and it was missed. He fell through the cracks, but I truly don’t know exactly what system was supposed to catch him. You can’t commit or arrest someone for being creepy or weird. And if no one ever presses charges, then the police can’t do much either. Our University has far more resources than most high schools and middle schools, and we still struggle to meet the needs of our student body.
All of this is to say, it would have been super swell if it had been harder for him to get a hold of weapon that could wreak that amount of devastation. Or maybe if those types of firearms and magazines weren’t available for purchase at all, but God forbid you give up your hobby.