1.10.2011

A Fine Line

Before Saturday, I had planned to write a short essay in examination of Oregon's football team and its rise to national prominence. However, after Saturday's reprehensible shooting in Tucson, Arizona, I'm not too much into hashing that out. Instead, I'd like to simply state that my thoughts are with the families of those who lost loved ones.

I was taken aback by an interview that I looked at this morning on Today. Lynda Sorenson took a math class with Jared Lee Loughner. Back in June, she wrote
a couple of e-mails to a friend that now seem chillingly prescient. She wrote that Loughner was a classroom disruption, and that she sat near the door because he was the kind of student that might show up with a weapon and she wanted a chance at escape.

She expressed her concerns to the professor, who immediately informed his superiors. A few weeks later, Loughner was removed from the classroom.

A
similar situation took place years ago, when Nikki Giovanni sought to have Sung-Hui Cho removed from a creative writing class. Giovanni told NPR at the time:

"I requested that he be be taken from my class because of his behavior. I don't know what we could have done differently. I've taught students who were clearly psychotic ... You can't kick people out of school because they're different, and you can't kick them out because they would be weird."

Giovanni's correct, but there are obviously limits to the amount of bizarre behavior an instructor needs to tolerate. I've worked at universities and community colleges in Oregon and Florida continuously since 2002. I've worked with thousands of students in that time, and I've encountered many who had emotional or behavioral issues--some pretty severe, in this layman's estimation.

Only three times did I need to involve security in the conversation. I've asked students to leave class for being disrespectful, rude, and saying outright bigoted things to myself and to other students. In my first year at Mt. Hood Community College, I had a student that came to every class with large headphones covering her ears. Unfortunately, the adapter hung loosely at her side (I've been told by some in the mental health field that's a coping mechanism for folks suffering from mental illness), not plugged into any i-pod or radio. I've had to break up a fistfight between two men over their discord on abortion.

I had a student follow one of his classmates home, and that constituted a serious intervention involving not only campus security, but the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. I mention all of this just to show how common it is in our culture to encounter folks like Jared Loughner. The
CDC lists the following on its website:

•Percent of noninstitutionalized adults with serious psychological distress in the past 30 days: 3.2%


I'll be honest with you: it's a challenge sometimes to maintain control when a student presents a persistent behavioral problem. I try to create an open, inviting atmosphere for discussion of current events. We write about such topics as immigration policy, stem cell research, identity theory and sexuality--stuff that is both emotionally charged and topical. I love it, and I prefer using the challenging topics to the canned arguments in the textbook. It's the best way to contextualize the students' present reality, and to give their writing purpose.

But man, sometimes it's a can of worms that is probably better left alone.

After the shootings at Virgina Tech, our college installed two-way communicators between all classrooms and campus security. It's a sad reminder, every day, of the environment we live in. Those communicators offer little hope for me that things will be okay if an imbalanced student comes to class with bad intentions.

So what can be done? I think vigilance is important. I think instructors, administrators, security and students need to understand each other better. Just because someone pays tuition does not mean that I am mandated to work with him or her. That's the reality of the situation--one I've made abundantly clear to a pair of students at the Deerwood Center in the last eighteen months. Each of those students' behavior improved and we finished the course on decent terms. But I did, at one point last summer, forward all student correspondence to security after the level of threatening rhetoric made me uncomfortable.

More than anything, however, the atmosphere in higher education needs to undergo a paradigm shift to focus more closely on hiring mental health experts to work side by side with others in the counseling areas. There's this unspoken belief that, because it's "higher education," students should understand how to "behave." The belief extends to the notion that classrooms are safe and college campuses are largely populated by mature students. This is just simply not true.

By improving upon mental health interventions and treatment, I think you make everyone safer. Perhaps, if Sorenson's instructor had been able to convince Loughner to visit Pima Community College's mental health services, an intervention might have changed things before he brought a gun to a political discussion at a local grocery store. Perhaps, if Loughner's mental state had been accurately assessed, he wouldn't have been able to purchase the gun at Sportsmen's Warehouse in the first place.

As we discuss and debate some of the political ramifications that this horrible event have revealed, let's not lose focus on the role that mental illness continues to take in American culture...

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