On Campus

It’s not only about security

Gun debates aside, why are so many students deeply unhappy?

I tend to keep this blog light and (hopefully) practical so I feel a great sense of responsibility as I use even my limited soapbox to comment on a current news topic of deep importance to many people. The most recent school shooting, at Northern Illinois University, is a tragedy and should not become fodder for casual or flippant commentary. All the same, I see a trend here that may be important to the way we all approach the institution of university, and it isn’t merely about better security protocols or faster emergency response times.

Obviously we don’t know the whole story about “why” just yet but as with all events of this nature the official explanation, whatever it may eventually be, will seem woefully inadequate. It’s fine to put it all down to some mental disturbance (isn’t anyone who opens fire on a crowd mentally disturbed by definition?) but to my mind there’s a two-stage process to this analysis. First, there’s a question about how and why a university student becomes so disturbed in the first place. Then there’s the second question about how and why this student reacts by arming himself and going on a rampage.

It seems to me that we almost always jump right to the second question. We talk about lax gun control in the United States. We talk about a culture of violence. All of these things may be true to some extent and they may serve to explain why students who simply have no hope left, or anything to hold onto, respond in such tragic fashion. I don’t have any suggestions about how to reverse course on the culture of violence or how to better protect an open campus from events of this nature. I do think there’s no rational reason at all why anyone would need a handgun save to protect him or herself from the next person with a handgun, but that’s a separate topic. I want to talk about the first issue, and how students become so disturbed in the first place.

There is way more of this going on than anyone would ever imagine, if you merely add up the number of shootings on campus. It’s international news when a student goes on a shooting rampage. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s barely local news when a student kills him or herself without endangering anyone else. It isn’t even local news when a student attempts suicide but fails. It isn’t news at all when students need professional and pharmaceutical help to deal with stress and depression. At that point it’s just a statistic. And it’s happening all the time.

I am not remotely qualified to discuss the question of why some people, when they are dealing with massive amounts of stress and frustration and depression, respond by hurting other people. This question predates violence on campus – remember when “going postal” was the catchphrase – and must surely be left to experts. But I do know that many students suffer from massive amounts of stress and frustration and depression. Statistically speaking, I suppose, if even a tiny fraction respond in this way it’s going to keep happening. I know people don’t want to hear that, but so far we haven’t altered any of the fundamentals that lead to that result. And again, that only addresses the danger of the next incidence of public violence. It says nothing about the suicide tally, the attempted suicide tally, and the widespread mental health issues.

I mean no disrespect to the victims of the NIU tragedy, but at some point we are going to have to face the fact that events of this nature disclose a very widespread problem on campus, and they are merely the most obvious symptom. Many students are deeply unhappy. They are captive within a system that has promised them so much and delivered very little. They are angry and disillusioned. As they see their dreams fall away, they may feel they have nothing left to live for. None of this excuses violence in any way. But it may serve to help explain it.

Inevitably, there’s now a rush to develop a profile of the shooter. There seems to be this idea that if we can only figure out the exact kind of person who might snap we can head them all off, and at least keep everyone safe from them. Of course if we could identify violent people ahead of time that would be wonderful, for everyone’s sake, but I believe this will never address the bulk of the problem. There is no one profile. The only way to reduce the pool of students who might potentially snap in some violent way is to reduce the number of students who are stressed and frustrated and miserable to the point where they snap at all. School does not need to feel this hopeless.

Of course not all students are unhappy. When we speak in generalities we must, necessarily, oversimplify. But I know that many students are deeply frustrated with their experiences – far more of them than there’s any justification for. That’s the one link in the chain we might all be able to get at, to at least some extent, and it’s bloody high time we did so.

I address myself now to the administrators and professors who I know read my blog, and to anyone else who may exert any power at all in the system. If you want to protect your students from themselves and each other, the surest way is to help them feel good about their experiences and about their futures. Stop processing them like cattle and reintroduce humanity into your institutions. Of course we all have operating constraints, but wherever you can make any improvement at all you should do so. The smallest human gesture might be all the difference it takes to lend students some hope and some sense of purpose. When you can do that you will never know what kind of unfortunate event you may have helped to prevent – whether large or small – but if we can make even a tiny difference for enough students, the net result will be fewer tragedies.

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