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 Okay, a student is pale and withdrawn, young, male, socially awkward, sometimes angry, and frequently in his own world.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?