Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Campus: Safe Zone

I’m so sorry about the people who were killed at Virginia Tech. My prof held a moment of silence during lecture, and then talked for a bit about how colleges are supposed to be bastions of freedom and learning, and as such, are very open and vulnerable. What could I have done to help? Sadly, nothing --- I am across the continent and first heard about it all long after it was over. What could I do, then, should something like this happen here, at my campus? I don’t know --- or more exactly, I am a roil of conflicting feelings about the issues this brings up. Would I want to be here, or anywhere, that resembled a prison on lockdown, windowless and with barred bulletproof doors? Would I feel safer or just more paranoid? Would I actually be any safer?

I have had a dream, on three separate occasions, that I was in my library cubicle working and someone came through the stacks, the reference area, the computer lab, shooting --- popping off shots with a methodical crack crack crack. I could hear shouting, screaming, silence. I dreamed that I moved the desk in front of the door and hid in a corner where I could not be seen from the little inset window, trying not to breathe loudly. Someone tried the handle, and I woke up. I tried, once, in waking life, moving the desk and seeing if I could be spotted from the corner. Are you sure you want to call me paranoid?

This dream has a source. We had a violent incident like this some years ago --- although not with guns --- where a student “snapped” and “out of nowhere” killed people. Except it wasn’t out of nowhere. My friend had asked this student to leave her section, and eventually kicked him out of the comp. lit class, for standing up and ranting in a bizarre way about how sick and disgusting the class was and they all were for being obsessed with death, that they and Gabriel Marcia Marquez all were evil and obsessed with death. I don’t remember if she reported this to admin. or if she referred him to counseling, but it turned out, after the killings, that quite a few people had tried to get him to the counseling center, and tried to get counseling to force him to come in.

The New York Times has an article amassing profiles of a lot of other people who have gone off on violent rampages, and the reporter points out how often we say the killer “suddenly snapped” when in fact that is almost never the case. Over and over again there are signs of violent or unusual or anti-social behavior, threats to kill other people or themselves that are laughed off or minimized, and individual people trying to get them psychiatric help or inform the police, but since these actions are scattered and isolated, no one connects the dots or comes forward to make a push for consistent treatment.

There are two sides to be considered in this: the relationship of teachers to their “troubled” students, and their relationship to their students in general in cases of emergency. Tenured Radical has a lovely post up wondering what we, as teachers, would do in the same situation as those at Virginia Tech, and I honestly don’t know if I would find the courage and self possession to take action, literally, under fire. (Earthquakes I’m prepped on; I could handle one of those. I’ve even looked up my building’s evacuation point and know what I would do with my class. But you don’t get to pick the disaster that happens to you, do you?) My sister, the safety officer for a large company, was appalled after 9/11 to learn that the Twin Towers had no organized evacuation policy nor had they ever run a practice evacuation to train people how to escape (stopping a over a hundred floors of high-paid workers to have them practice going down stairs and milling about outside would be very expensive, I’m sure). But someone has to think about these things --- hopefully more someones than fewer, as there was that Time Magazine article about how the vast majority of people freeze and stop thinking when a disaster happens, and tend to follow the lead of people around them, which means someone there better be capable of being a clear-headed leader. Which means that teachers and even (gulp!) TAs, as the leaders in the classrooms, should be thinking, planning, about these sorts of things.

Except I feel such mixed feelings about this. I don’t want to go through teaching scoping out every classroom for escape routes and scrutinizing all my students for signs of violence and mental illness. Horace makes a good point about how these types of incidents close down students’ academic freedom and make certain topics unspeakable --- and high schools have radically transformed since Columbine, as students have told me about an ever-increasing surveillance and an ever-narrower definition of normativity (Shades of Foucault indeed! Never would I have thought I would think of my high school experience as free and unrestricted, but comparatively, it was.) And I worry that even if I were to refer a student to counseling, nothing would be done --- let me add that, nationally, we should be working to fix our health care and mental-health care system, which is so strapped and overburdened, because funding and fixing these systems would do a lot to make us safer. But when students refuse treatment or deny that they have problems, colleges run into the conflicting rights of students as individuals to determine their treatment and not be institutionalized against their will, vs. the rights of the larger student community to be protected. And how responsible is responsible? How much of an obligation do I, as an overworked and underpaid grad student hoping to soon be an overworked professor, have to the mental well-being of my students and their physical safety? How much time and effort do I put in before the problem is bigger than I can handle and somebody else’s responsibility?

I suppose, in the end, I come down on the side of be prepared, although I hate to reduce this to a cheesy Boy Scout cliché. And I rationalize that if one of my students seems hurt and upset, referring them to the counseling center would be a gesture of caring, not that I was suspicious and distrustful of them, but that I wanted them to not hurt so much, no? But mostly I’ve decided that being a leader and an authority in the classroom entails being prepared to take the lead if a disaster happens there, and that if I don’t think about all this now, I won’t be thinking at all in the moment. For, to steal the line from the labor movement, If not now, when? If not you, then who?

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