Tina K. Russell

April 18, 2008

On Prevention

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 5:53 pm

Topics in University Security: Lockdown 101 – New York Times

IN February, a man carrying a fake assault weapon burst into an American foreign policy class at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. The seven unsuspecting students, along with a stunned professor who later remarked that he was “prepared to die at that moment,” were held hostage for 10 minutes. During that time, the gunman said he would kill at least one of them.

The class survived because the gunman was a volunteer, part of an exercise intended to test the university’s system for responding to a possible campus attack. The university had alerted its students and faculty with e-mail and text messages, but not everyone read them. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the simulation — at least physically.

In the year since the shooting at Virginia Tech last April 16, American colleges have been under pressure, from worried parents as well as from the news media, to beef up campus security. Like Elizabeth City State, many schools have overreacted by instituting safety measures of questionable effectiveness. Safety officials are quick to shut down classes, as happened recently at California State University, Dominguez Hills, when an R.O.T.C. student with a drill rifle was mistaken for an assailant toting an automatic weapon. Instead of making campuses safer, we are fostering an unwarranted and unhealthy level of fear.

Never, ever betray a student’s trust without the strongest of reasons. That trust is extremely hard to build over time and painfully easy to tear down. Moreover, I’m troubled by the use of nightly-news scare stories as disaster scenarios to prepare for. Certainly, students need to know what to do in case of an emergency, and such emergencies include the possibility of a hostile person with a firearm on campus. Especially in these days of shock reporting on TV, it can give students comfort to know they have a plan in case of danger, one that is unlikely to fail. But drilling the students improv-drama style, with a fake assailant scaring the students and professor half to death, just to practice for one specific scenario is inevitably going to do more harm than good. The last thing we want to do is make students bitter and cynical about campus safety, or worse, make them presume that a real assailant is just an actor sent by campus security.

Perhaps the most important change inspired by Virginia Tech is a renewed emphasis on mental health services. And given that there are many times more suicides on campus than homicides, this could benefit countless students, the vast majority of whom pose no danger to others. Over the past year, one-third of campus counseling centers have added staff members, including psychiatrists, and 15 percent of campus counseling centers have received larger budgets.

Suicide is an enormous danger to students, and I’m happy to see any college beefing up its department for dealing with it. But there are only so many suicide-prevention posters you can clobber a campus with (my school, the University of Oregon, is plastered with them). But I want to see a broader range of attack (and forgive me if I’m ignorant of such efforts in this direction). I’d like to see some sociological studies done on what factors may or may not make a campus likely to be a suicide risk. Off the top of my head, I’d guess that, while what a suicidal student most needs is a friend to listen to him or her (and not, repeat not, offer judgment), what could keep students from becoming suicidal is classes and activities interesting and engaging to them, and faculty that engage with them, checking up on them and letting them know someone is on their side. I didn’t get any of that coming to UO, but hey, things can change.

Suicide prevention is more than just suicide intervention… we must ensure students are not inclined to do so in the first place. While we can’t simply fix students’ problems for them, we can create an environment where it always feels like there’s something more left to discover.

…And, of course, student depression causes more problems than just suicide, such as drug or alcohol abuse, risky social and sexual behavior, poor school performance and disconnection with reality, et cetera. Until we face the whole picture–and stop assuming that suicidal students simply have something in their heads, a screw loose or a joint unhinged, that will inevitably be fixed through talking, though it helps–student suicides will still be campus’s most dangerous scourge.

But this approach, too, may fail to identify and stop a violent student. Thousands of college students are depressed or even suicidal, but there is no consistent profile of a person who turns from disappointment and frustration to violent rage.

…Except that one tends to go from the former to the latter. Like this writer, I feel that it’s more important to recognize that many students on your campus want to kill themselves, and they need immediate help, than to quiver in your boots about a possible Virginia Tech II. However, if the knowledge that helping students out of suicide will also help keep aggressive students from turning suicidal thoughts into violent action leads to a greater awareness of the problem, I’m all for it. I just hope we don’t go into a post-Columbine fetal position of being scared of every awkward teenager in a dark hooded sweatshirt, worrying that they could be the next killers. That kind of fear ferments in their minds as an identity, and helps drive students toward violence.

And if you know a student who’s depressed, reach out and listen. Don’t judge, listen. If you think your friend might be suicidal, talk about it with them, bring it up (trust me, you won’t be giving them ideas; suicide is everywhere and everyone’s considered it). Spend time with them, give them openings, help them see why it’s worth it to keep on living, and don’t blame them for not seeing it right away (or even over a long period of time), because we’ve all been through our dark patches and rough spots (though this is a particularly bleak one), and it takes time and effort to get out.

It also takes friends.

1 Comment »

  1. “what could keep students from becoming suicidal is classes and activities interesting and engaging to them, and faculty that engage with them, checking up on them and letting them know someone is on their side.”

    Oi, yes. The incredible pressure, competition, and general feeling that students are a waste of faculty time is enough to make thousands of students think of suicide! What IS education anyways, other than UNDERSTANDING?

    Comment by Hannah — April 20, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

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