Friday, January 14, 2011


How Do You Know?

This week, nearly everyone on campus has been talking about Jared Lee Loughner. Aside from the obvious shock at what he did -- as the father of a nine-year-old, I can’t even begin to imagine -- we’ve all been questioning the role of the college. As it happened, he attended Pima Community College for a while, having accumulated quite the record of incidents before being dismissed. We’ve all been asking ourselves what would have happened if he had been enrolled here.

I don’t have any inside information about him, and I don’t work at Pima. This is less about him than it is about the next Jared Lee. I assume there will be a next one.

In the abstract, it’s easy to say that the college should have done something. But it’s remarkably hard to “do something” that would have an impact outside of the college.

Like many, my college established a Threat Assessment Team after the Virginia Tech massacre. The team has faculty, counselors, student affairs leadership, an academic dean, and the head of security on it. It examines cases brought to it by concerned members of the college community about people on campus who are exhibiting signs of being dangerous.

That’s a tricky business, though. In clear-cut cases, such as direct threats, there isn’t much need for a review team; you call security and that’s that. By definition, the team deals with ambiguous cases.

The challenge there, though, is the burden of proof. Okay, a student is pale and withdrawn, young, male, socially awkward, sometimes angry, and frequently in his own world. Is he dangerous or just weird? How do you know? That same student writes a paper in which he admits fantasizing about buying an Uzi, driving to the worst part of town, and “doing some justice.” (I’m describing a student I had in one of my classes about ten years ago.) Is he a mass murderer in the making, or just someone who has watched way too many action movies? How do you know?

If you only look at one case, and have the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the “right” answer. But if you look across a campus with a cast of thousands, and new faces every few months, you can’t help but notice that the usual ‘profiles’ would turn up an absurd number of false positives.

Open-admissions colleges with thousands of students can’t possibly keep close eyes on everybody. It cannot be done. (And I’ve got just enough Foucault left in my system to say, “and a good thing, too.”) At most, faculty and staff can report observed behaviors; if the same kid turns up over and over again, as Jared Lee did at Pima, the college can take action. But even there, the action will usually be limited to dismissing the student from campus. That helps the campus, to some degree, but it leaves the general public unprotected.

It’s not just students, either. Employees sometimes come unhinged in various ways, whether through illness, substance abuse, lost relationships, or whatever else. In most cases, people manage to keep it together enough to be okay at work over time, but sometimes not. The cases I’ve seen have been sad and mystifying; in a few cases, they’ve led to terminations. In none of those cases could I plausibly claim to have seen it coming.

Laws and policies can be misleadingly clear. It’s easy to say things like “you should have known” or “the college has a responsibility.” But people aren’t that clear. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the underlying decency and humanity of some people from whom I would not have expected it, and I’ve been disappointed and even shocked at the inhumanity of some people who initially seemed fine. And that’s over the course of years. When it’s a student who has been in your class for a few weeks, knowing the difference between ‘disruptive’ and ‘dangerous’ typically isn’t easy. Is the creepy young man in the corner a threat, a victim, or just a jerk? And how do you know?

I had a student 20 years ago who regularly wrote about his love for the 1911 .45 Browning Colt military sidearm--such loves are nothing unusual here in wayupnorth. He made it clear to me late in the semester that he always kept his Colt in his backpack.

Today, of course, I'd have to react differently, if for no other reason than that we've banned firearms on campus. Back then, I could just say, 'Just keep your hands on the keyboard where I can see them.'

I have many students whose springs of action, thought, and feeling are utter mysteries to me. But this guy seemed cheerful, pleasant, sane, flexible, amusing--and he could write! God knows there's no art to find the mind's construction in the face, but I filed him away under 'Amusing Class Characters' and never gave it a thought.

I had another student a few years ago--also a good writer!--who was deeply enmeshed in conspiracy theories: the Protocols of Zion, the Trilateral Commission, the Masons, the international bankers, Holocaust denial, survivalism, the need for gold currency, and so on. Also a gun nut, who spent his weekends in the gravel pit behind his house, practicing his aim so that when his neighbors stormed his bunker for food after the apocalypse he could protect his family.

Well, he'd be a candidate for watching, eh? But in truth, he lives right down the road from me, I'd known him since he was six years old, and he is a harmless eccentric. So far anyway....

I often have borderline personalities in class: people with jailhouse manipulation skills, always looking to be offended, always trying to manuever the other guy into admitting 'something,' always putting the worst construction on things, always vaguely threatening, always fibbing, always playing jailhouse lawyer.

Those are the people who frighten me.
I suppose this is horribly politically incorrect, but the easiest way to deal with guys like Jared Lee might be to find them a girlfriend.
The comment about Jared Loughner and getting him a girlfriend isn't politically incorrect. It's stupid.
It's funny to hear conservatives like Sean Hannity, who ostensibly believe in individual rights and freedom from government tyranny, blaming the college (a govt institution) for not having Laughner committed. The hypocrisy of Tea Party conservatism is just laughable.
Is the creepy young man in the corner a threat, a victim, or just a jerk? And how do you know?

We can't. And the sooner we recognize that we cannot accurately predict the behavior of every single individual in every situation, the better.
The most important thing is that we blame our Community College system for failing to take on the role of an adequate mental health system.

I mean, can you imagine if the liberals managed to convince the public that public health would be improved by spending money on it? Next thing you know, black people will be getting treated for childhood diseases and Mexican children will sit in the doctor's office next to your kids. Utterly unacceptable.
Milo is right. We can't know. Unless (until) every single student is forced to submit to an indepth background check and psychological testing prior to and on a regular basis while attending a college, we'll never be able to know. Even then, there are people who will pass a background check and testing with flying colors. What can a college do? Work within the laws that exist and have a good plan for after the fact.
What the govt can do, now that's another question entirely.
If you want to come up with a short list of institutions that might have had a hand in helping Mr. Loughner, I can think of two.

Social services - were they more adequately funded they might be able to look after the boarderline mentally ill instead of barely keeping up with the floridly insane.

Legislative bodies: These put a higher premium on gun ownership than gun safety - because we tell them to. I can't imagine why anyone would need a semiautomatic weapon much less understand why we permit the mentally unstable to own them. Perhaps, like cars, guns should come with required "gun insurance" that would pay for the expenses of people hurt by those who own them. Not holding my breath on that one.

Schools are not responsible for society and its ills - they have a responsiblity within the confines of their campus which Pima upheld. We have to stop holding the wrong people accountable and instead really ask ourselves why it's OK to have so many guns out there that our kids get murdered at political rallies.
What we need to do is bring back the draft. Then these 18-22 year olds will have a mission outside themselves, modeling by an older leader, and a sense of community. I was part of the generation which was the last group in danger of being drafted for Vietnam. I saw some young men straighten themselves out or find purpose in their lives even if they did hate being in the military. They were not alone. They had a place to sleep, clothes, food, a job, and people who hated being drafted like them. They were in a new world and they grew and came out as exemplary citizens.
@Anon 8:44: it's even funnier to see the way lefties react to this. They are usually concerned about the rights of mentally ill people (and, given our society's shameful history in this regard, they are mostly correct in their concern.) Yet, the second a mentally ill person starts shooting Democrats, it's "Lock 'em up and throw away the key."
Dean Dad -
Actually, you can have the inside information about him. They have reportedly released 50+ pages of the police reports on his actions. True, there would probably be other reports that are in his student file, but you might find reading those reports informative - as a potential case study. We get students sent to us with CC attendance as a condition for parole or mental health community transition, so you probably do also.

IMHO, his YouTube rants sound like what happens when common Bircher teachings (in his case, about hard money) encounter a disturbed mind. (Think Manson and "Helter Skelter".) Or any teachings at all: he also talks about "conscience" (conscious?) dreaming in one video. And then there are the "jailhouse lawyer" ideas, like the one where the First Amendment gives him the right to put down any answer on an exam and have it be graded as correct, that can't be so readily characterized.

And then there is the seemingly novel idea that State Mandated Grammar (is he talking about HS exit exams?) violates his First Amendment rights. I wonder if a Real Lawyer could make something of that!

But you don't have to be crazy to be dangerous. It's been a long time since the left influenced someone to blow up a building (like at Wisconsin), but McVeigh came from a perfectly rational anti-government right-wing background that has led to many deaths in the past few decades.
It sounds like this guy has serious issues. It's a pity that we couldn't stop him before anything happened!
@Anon: cite, please.
It will be interesting to see if they fire the part-time instructor who was critical of administration. The instructor had complained numerous times, and administrators responded that Loughner hadn't brought any weapons to class, so they'd just have to wait until he took that next step.

I had a student who once wrote a narrative about orchestrating a kidnapping/murder, though he wasn't directly involved in the murder. He received information that the kidnapped female hadn't been involved in the trangression for which she was abducted, so he called the killers and told them to call it off, but it was too late. He said he really felt bad about it.

I asked him if the story was fiction, and he said no, but I routinely have students in transfer-level English courses who don't know what fiction is. In any case, this was one scary dude, so I did nothing--he probably made an A. As a part-time instructor, I am not connected to my college community; in fact, I simply feel exploited by them. Loughner was a student at the college for five years. One would think that a pattern would have been noticed, but perhaps not if he was continually being taught by part-time instructors who, rightfully, fear making any waves.

On a final note, the judicial system in my county routinely give convicted criminals a choice between jail or attending community college. These criminals would have at one time had option of the military, but the military no longer wants them. Now that community colleges have become a sort of extension of social services, violent incidents will increase. I also predict more explosions of rage from instructors who aren't paid a living wage. They, like Loughner, feel like they have been scammed by the educational system.
@anon who wants to bring back the draft- you do know Loughner was rejected from the military due to unsuitability, right?
I agree a sense of purpose beyond oneself and a sense of belonging can soothe some troubled souls... but I don't think your solution would have worked in this case.

@anon the part time instructor- please talk to someone. You sound very reasonable but very tormented- it happens in a toxic work environment. It doesn't have to be that way.
Mental health issues of both students and professors and predicting the behavior of those that seem outside the norm are indeed difficult. And, as DD points out, the college's hands are tied until action takes place. Luckily for some in Tucson, others in the crowd were willing to confront the shooter and take advantage of his changing his clip. They, too, are heroes. These random acts are indeed random but point to why we always have to be aware of our surroundings. Hindsight is almost always 20/20. At this point, we just have to hope we can prevent copycats of this particular incident.

Thanks, DD, for pointing out the complexity of the issues here.
If I can give only directory information regarding a student how can I tell external agencies that a student is a threat? If the student breaks the law information can be released to the appropriate agency, but did Jared Loughner break the law while he was at Pima? From what I have read he was dismissed from actions related to mental health issues and told to seek help before returning. I don't think Pima is to blame here. They did what they could to protect their students and the community at large. Loughner was told to seek help. I believe that is as far as a community college can go. Loughner had a choice. He chose not to seek help or to re-enroll at Pima.
@Cathy in Virginia:
There is a significant difference between what FERPA allows you to tell a random person about your students and what you can tell the campus police (or whatever police agency that has jurisdiction on your campus). If you don't know, ask.

One thing we learned in our now-annual safety seminar is that our campus police share information with other agencies to the extent permitted by law. A concern we have had on our campus is that we (the faculty) don't know what our campus police know. There are some good reasons for this, but some risks as well.
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