Monday, December 2, 2013

"The Day I Almost Bought a Gun." From the T Shirt Prof.

On a scale from Voldemort to Amelie of optimism, I fall somewhere in the Oprah range, I think. I've been accused of being a "Pollyanna" by my own Dean, even! I lived in what I'll generously call a "pre-gentrified" neighborhood in grad school, one where I assured my parents I was safe because the shootings all happened one block over.

I'd say that this overly optimistic (naive?) young professor took a bit of a hit to his belief system one cold morning when my phone rang at 8am with a University exchange. It's a call I won't ever forget.

I didn't recognize the number but any fool on campus that early had to motivated to call me, so I answered it. It was the Provost, a man that I was sure had no idea who I was. He first asked if I was ok (I was, although my anxiety was beginning to rise quickly) and then said the magic phrase, "We have a bit of a situation here..."

He went on to say that the President of the University, new to the job, had a few days earlier received a disturbing email from a student that mentioned me by name. The Provost asked if I knew much about the student, and so I described the paper that I received via email at about the same time that the President got the email.

Briefly, I had assigned each student a one page paper each week of the term for an experimental one credit course that I was trying out. These were mostly highly motivated non-majors, and for the most part they were motivated and highly engaged throughout the class.

One student, however, often arrived late without having completed the assigned reading and would generally act as the class foil. If someone articulated a strong position, he'd attempt to stake out the opposite viewpoint - which nearly always amounted to "hey, you can't analyze this stuff, you just FEEL it."

I felt like I was out of touch with this student, so I crafted a set of readings and a paper that I thought he might find interesting. Boy did I!

The paper itself contained the following passage (which I've edited to remove names and identifying material):

I don’t expect [you] to understand that but what are you going to do about? Have some one poison me? You probably will. [someone else], a professor, did. Just to let you know this class is under serious investigation for fascist activity. You can talk to...the President, about it. (You said you didn’t care about the content of this paper [professor] and by the way I didn’t forget to email you about asking you to bring in the article, and last year I reported you for having a test question on one of your tests for your ...course that promotes bigotry...You are such a fricken Nazi. Don’t make me pay for blowing the whistle because I will and I mean will make you pay.

At the time I got the paper I nervously laughed it off (that's the Pollyanna in me!). But the student had emailed the President and began his email with the line, "The recent shootings at Northern Illinois were a tragedy, but something similar could happen here..." and went on to essentially claim that I was a fascist and that the student knew that both the President and myself were in a conspiracy to poison him.

And here's the best part - a quick google search revealed that this student's name was the same as a local firearms enthusiast.

Thus began a dance between myself, the administration, and the local police where the University legally couldn't do much unless the student made a physical threat. (he had claimed that he meant "make you pay" legally, as in sue the University) I dunno about you, but I read that last line above (make you pay) over and over and I was pretty sure that it was a physical threat!

It turns out that the student maintained a Myspace account that read exactly like the notebooks of Dylan and Eric, the Columbine killers. It was utterly incoherent most times and it clearly showed that this student's mental health was at the point of crisis. He was on and off various meds (now I know that this was the "poison" that he mentions) and viewed the meds as the equivalent of crushing his creativity. That's right - he saw his psychosis as merely a manifestation of his true creative spirit, and any attempt to medicate him was as if the doctors, parents, teachers, friends, whomever were killing off a vital part of his soul.

For roughly two weeks the student disappeared. No one knew where he was. He never did return to class, although he did attend meetings with counseling staff on campus, and we was eventually banned from campus due to erratic behavior. He quickly was banned from a local community college, and then totally disappeared. A few days later he posted a rant directed at University officials that said that he wanted to rip the heart from the rib cage of one specifically, and within minutes he was arrested and hospitalized.

During this time I did consider carry a firearm to class. Luckily my rational brain realized that I'd most likely shoot, in order, myself, an innocent student, the wall, the floor...anything BUT the threat so I was able to resist that feeling. I did enter a bit of a zen state. I rescheduled all of my classes (at least the location of them) and stopped going to office hours. I figured that I was pretty much toast if the student decided to take it out on me, but I wanted to ensure that the rest of the students were safe. Nothing ever came of it, fortunately. The student eventually spent a good amount of time in jail (drugs, of course). He seems to have left the area.

Now, 5 years later, I still caution colleagues to be very observant of student behavior. Most of us have been in a situation in which an agitated student intimidated us. However, the combination of new freedoms, still raging hormones, drugs, and psychosis can cause even a very seemingly stable student to have a breakdown. College is stressful!

One final note - it is due to this situation that I am stridently and vocally anti-carry for students. I can't reveal why when the issue arises, but I cannot imagine a situation in which allowing students to carry guns on campus is a net positive for us.


  1. This sort of story occasionally drifts through my own mind. Of course we're always surrounded by the general public and its dangers, but students who become INVESTED in us and our classes truly do have ratcheted-up feelings and emotions.

    1. @Hiram: Yes, and they see us as controlling their destinies. This is why I think it's nuts for professors to invite students to their homes.

  2. TSP, your experience is truly unnerving. It sounds like your school did a good job of taking the threat seriously, for what that's worth.

  3. Very scary! I am glad you are okay!!!

  4. Better to have a student like this than a chairman like this, but it is awful either way.

  5. It's hard not to be afraid of students like this. I had a conspiracy theorist last semester who tried to write a researched argument on ... something I have been saving for a post. When I tried to warn him that what he was arguing was impossible and that he needed to do some serious revision in order to avoid failing the essay, he got mad, and threatened to have his pro-life group picket the school. The dean tried to mediate, and I offered a re-do under my (unpaid summer) supervision. He refused. He failed the essay. He took his complaint to my department, which backed me up. He took it all the way to the Provost's office, which also backed me up. But I was nervous, and still am.

    But I am with you. I have no military or police training, and so would be more likely to injure myself or an innocent bystander. So I leave my rifle at home.

  6. Really, y'all, firing ranges are not uncommon and firing a weapon at a target (I prefer standard, round competition targets to silhouettes) is cathartic. (Also expensive; have you priced ammunition lately?)

    But it's not that difficult to become proficient enough to hit an assailant ten or twenty feet away, center-of-mass.

    1. I'd add that there's lots of room between unarmed and concealed carry. You can carry a knife or taster. Even a whistle can alert others to an emergency or potential emergency and thereby reduce the chance that the assailant follows through on an imminent threat.

  7. "You can carry a knife or taster."

    So that, in the event the student tries to poison *you*, you will be prepared.

  8. I wonder if a 'panic' button will need to be installed in classrooms in the future. I know I've wanted one in my office from time to time.

    I had a student like this a few years ago who had suffered a skateboarding accident and emerged out of his coma with a totally different personality. He had lost the ability to filter his speech and said whatever he felt. One day, during a class debate, this included telling everyone in class that he wanted to kill all of us and would do so when we all least expected it. I asked that he leave the class because his classmates were scared of him and I was really unnerved by his inability to filter his thoughts. He complied, but continued spewing forth threats. He ended up being institutionalized for a few days until the hospital deemed him rational enough to return to school. Until he graduated, I was wary of his presence on campus. Everyone discounted his threats as mere posturing because of his accident, but I was never convinced that he wouldn't just strike out one day because he had lost the ability to control his impulses.

  9. T shirt Prof, you had me from: "On a scale from Voldemort to Amelie of optimism, I fall somewhere in the Oprah range, I think."

    I'm with you about guns on campus in general. But I have requested, once, a plainclothes officer in the classroom for a week. The cop wore a Kevlar vest and a holster under a jacket. It was the only time I was glad to know there was a gun nearby.

    My loose cannon cursed me out the first day of class, and a Google search showed he used an avatar online from a first-person shooter game. My dean was the one who suggested a police presence in the classroom until a threat could be assessed. It didn't occur to me to change classrooms, and I probably couldn't have given campus crowding, but I gave each class a "routine" safety briefing. It started with earthquake and fire drill info, and then I added using the lab benches as shields, exiting quickly, leaving all stuff behind, and keeping hands visible to cops. Nothing came of it, thank the gods. My biggest worry had been the student in the motorized wheelchair and whether he'd be the second victim.

    I tell my kids I love them on a regular basis. It became a daily basis that week, and since.

  10. You know, I would carry a gun if I knew how to use one. And it is most certainly not allowed on my campus.....but I'd do it anyway. The problem is, I don't know how to use one.

    We read, my Comp class and I ("I" read) an essay written by a woman who explained why she learned how to use a gun and now carries one. One of the things she writes about is that anyone carrying a gun should be skilled enough to get it quickly and sure enough to use it. No hesitancy.

    I am not sure I could ever get to that point. But I'd like to think that more of our non-crazy citizens are packing now-a-days.

    Blame the conservatism in my family tree.