On "Dangerous" Students
This escaped my notice earlier this week, but I think it bears noting. Apparently, according to News Channel 12 (which I think is a local CBS affiliate, if I'm not mistaken), "FAU Professors [are] Concerned About Dangerous Students." That's what the headline says, anyway.
My first inclination is to say, "Well, of course we are-- shouldn't everybody be concerned about danger?" That seems obvious to me. A teacher who acts blasé about a student coming in wielding a chainsaw and wearing a jacket made out of human flesh is-- and I hate to speak ill of any of my colleages-- not a very good professor, and probably doesn't deserve tenure. Yes, truly dangerous students should alarm us all.
But it turns out that this article isn't really about truly dangerous students-- it's about students who professors perceive as dangerous. "Professors at Florida Atlantic University have made twice as many concerned calls about odd student behavior than they did before the Virginia Tech shootings in April," the article tells us. So, from the headline to the first paragraph, the threat level gets downgraded from "dangerous" to "odd," or-- to use the new terror threat level I've been designing-- from "Al Qaeda" to "Britney Spears."
"Educators say that's also true at other Florida colleges," the article goes on to say. "One Florida State University officials says there's 'an increase of professors being frightened.'"
This seems kind of obvious to me-- college professors are used to being hated; that's part of our job. But this year, one student took his contempt for everyone around him on campus farther than most college students ever will. I imagine a lot of my colleagues are like me, and realized that what happened at Virginia Tech could very easily happen on any campus in America-- we've all made students profoundly angry; several of us have seen students cry. Most of us probably believed-- rightly so, I think-- that moments of profound disappointment are part of the college experience; when you're twenty years old, someone's going to tell you that your poetry needs work, or that your research paper was sloppy, or that they love you but they're not in love with you. I got all three, multiple times. And it was upsetting. But still... prior to Virginia Tech, I had never worried that a student might hate me so much that he'd do anything worse than post a nasty comment on "Rate My Professor."
So do some of us pay more attention to pissed off or depressed students now, nine months after Virginia Tech? Yeah. I think it's unavoidable. And in some cases, it's for the best-- but we do have to be careful. There are some students who clearly have anger-management problems-- like the student who once yelled at me in my office, demanding to know a classmate's grade. Or the student who got frustrated and tried to start a fight with one of his classmates. Or-- and this is rare-- the student who actually makes veiled threats about harming himself or others. These are students who obviously need someone to talk to, and we do them a disservice (and put ourselves and our other students at risk) when we ignore these problems and hope they go away on their own. So if the lessons of Virginia Tech result in professors taking on some additional responsibility to get seriously disturbed students the help they need, that's good.
At the same time, though, I think it's important to remember that "seriously disturbed students" are very, very rare, and that it's not our job to "report" every student who's homesick, or going through a difficult break-up, or-- most importantly-- who writes creative work that some might find upsetting. In the aftermath of the shooting, a former classmate of Seung-Hui Cho's tried to exploit the tragedy and gain his fifteen minutes of fame by giving copies of the shooter's creative work to America Online and claiming that if only the faculty and administration had paid attention to what this guy was writing in class, this whole tragedy could have been avoided.
This is, of course, moronic. In the past two years, I've had students write fiction about shootings, self-mutilation, rape, incest, child abuse, stalking, and all sorts of unpleasant things. And these students all belong to a club called "Students Who Haven't Gone On Killing Sprees Despite Writing Violent Stories." A certain type of student will always rely on graphic violence to tell a story, because violence is the most obvious way to indicate conflict, which is vital for a narrative. That, and these students only read Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk, and thus think graphic depictions of brutality are "powerful" and don't quite understand the value of subtlety.
Right after the shooting, lots of pundits and self-appointed experts asked "What could the school have done to prevent this?" And the sad answer was, probably nothing. Somehow, this disturbed young man managed to intimidate people without making overt threats, which meant there wasn't much the school could do. Law enforcement and psychiatric officials might have been able to do more-- perhaps if he'd been hospitalized rather than treated as an outpatient after his early run-ins with the law, he wouldn't have been able to purchase firearms. But hindsight is always 20/20, isn't it?
So I guess, in the end, it doesn't surprise me that professors are talking about students who seem troubled-- and in a lot of cases, that's a really good thing. Before Virginia Tech, I'd never spoken to anyone about an intimidating student; now, I've spoken about one. That may not seem so dramatic, but in terms of statistics, it's significant-- I'm in that number who made twice as many calls to report students who might need help.
But at the same time, I think it's important that we move past the fear that might have struck us on that day. A student who writes about death and dismemberment is most likely not going to turn his fiction into reality. The vast majority of our students are not "dangerous" in any way. A few-- from abusing drugs and alcohol-- are potentially dangers to themselves or others, but that's quite different. Despite some of our own fears and the sensationalized headlines dreamed up by our local media, our campuses are relatively safe places, and our students are not to be feared.