Tuesday, April 17, 2007

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An open question to faculty readers

According to the Washington Post, there were some warning signs from Cho Seung Hui before he killed more than 30 people at Virginia Tech: "Cho was an English major whose creative writing was so disturbing that he was referred to the school's counseling service, the Associated Press reported."

This fact prompted an e-mail from a colleague that raises a disturbing question:

In 8 years, I've taught hundreds of students. 2 of them so alarmed me by their behavior, I contacted the Dean of Students office to see what could be done. The answer: nothing. The best I got was a half-baked assurance that voluntary counseling would be suggested to one of them (he was an undergraduate who had insisted on taking my graduate seminar, showed up and refused to leave on the first day of class, and then sent me increasingly enraged emails filled with expletives and threats to bring charges against me to the Dean of Students). I ended up having to have a staff member escort me to class in case the student showed up again. He didn't, fortunately. But I didn't follow up and I bet nobody else did, either.

When a faculty or staff member reports disturbing student activity, what is the appropriate response? Can any actions be mandatory? What feedback loops should be regularly instituted? I don't have any answers, but I do have an acute sense of vulnerability -- universities, esp. public ones, are wide open.

All professors have encountered or will encounter this problem in their careers -- the student who seems way too intense for their own good.

That said, I'm also concerned about overreaction. What happened at Blacksburg is a rare event, and red-flagging students just for being intense and weird can create problems as well. [UPDATE: Megan McArdle elaborates on this point.]

Time's Julie Rawe has one story on how different universities are coping with this problem.

A few questions to faculty readers out there, however:

1) Have you ever encountered a student you suspected of being capable of violence on this scale?

2) What action did you take?

3) What, if anything, could or should universities do to improve security?

posted by Dan on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM


"What happened at Blacksburg is a rare event, and red-flagging students just for being intense and weird can create problems as well"

But probably not problems this big.

posted by: J on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

I've taught in the States and here in England. I have doubts whether America will pass effective gun control legislation with the powerful gun lobby to deal with. It's sad what's happening in America, but school shootings are rapidly becoming part of the American Gothic story.

I frankly admit I would have little clue that a student would be capable of such violence, nor would many I suppose. One suggestion out there is if you can't beat 'em (the gun lobby), join 'em. Nevada State Senator Bob Beers wants to train teachers to pack heat. Given how things are Stateside, you may not be left with much better choices.

posted by: Emmanuel on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

This reminds me of the post several weeks ago about reading student's Facebook and myspace pages... Anyone have doubts that reading those (if Cho had them) would only confirm the information we already have about his preoccupation with violence, systematic anti-social behavior, macabre writing, bomb threats, or other warning sings of an impending rampage killing?

My only possible solutions are that universities are way to big making them incapable of dealing with real violence or the threat of it. Also, students and any other groups under attack need to realize that the government can't save them. In an attack like this one, the only people that could respond in time were the students and teachers.

posted by: Pedantic on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Emmanuel: Don't forget "that pesky Constitution" to deal with as well; it tends to prohibit what you'd probably call "effective" gun control legislation.

(Many of us in America prefer to refer to this "gun lobby" as "civil rights organizations", since armed self-defense is a fundamental human and civil right, and further - as mentioned above - the keeping and bearing of arms is an enumerated Constitutional right, just as is freedom of the Press and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.)

Given that school (and other) shootings have been nipped in the bud by armed bystanders, the "gun lobby" is at least not obviously wrong.

(Snarkiness: How's that gun ban working out for y'all in Britain?

Surely it's prevented almost all gun-related criminal activities, yes, especially given how comparatively disarmed Britons were before it?


posted by: Sigivald on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

I've had a few students with anger problems, but more with drug, alcohol and relationship problems that made them dysfunctional.

Never felt personally threatened, but on a large campus on any given day anything is possible.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

STR: Same here; it's really hard to tell if there's something "wrong" with a student as we don't usually get involved with students' personal lives.

Sigivald: There's little disagreement here. If you can't disarm everyone, then perhaps arming some--perhaps instructors--would work. As far as I can tell, our host posed questions to educators about possible school violence in the US, so I am replying on the topic for I have taught there.

You're saying the first option isn't available, so the second is worth a try. Arming instructors might be the way although I have my doubts about unleashing pistol-packing profs.

posted by: Emmanuel on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

The reaction to Columbine and other school shootings was to interpret instances of disturbing writings or behavior as real indicators of danger--resulting in expulsions or other intervention. I don't think universities will go in that direction as readily, though, but greater awareness of warning signs would seem prudent.

posted by: BB on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

When I was a grad student I was the head TA for a large class which involved teaching a few sections and organizing the rest of them. There was a student who wanted to switch to another section a few weeks into the term as he didn't like getting up for the earlier one (10am!) that he had originally chosen. I told he could do so only if he found someone to switch with him. He made no effort to do so but made such a stink that I eventually let him switch anyway. When it came time for evaluations, rather than evaluate his own section leader he lied on the form and said that I was his section leader. He gave me the lowest possible marks and said things so bizarre (that I had mounted a concerted effort to destroy him, JUST LIKE HIS TA THE PREVIOUS SEMESTER, etc.) that I notified the dean. They said that as the forms were technically anon. we couldn't be sure it was him (though it was pretty much beyond a doubt). Anyway, nothing was done and two years later I read that he had been expelled for lighting a student's door on fire with lighter fluid.

posted by: C on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Sigivald - we have a gun problem in the UK - several gun murders recently have been headline news. They probably wouldnt have been in the US, because gang-related gun violence is far more routine that in the UK.

That said - i dont wish to be taking a side on this issue, its complicated. I think there are much more significant causes that gun availability. Also, how much can you extrapolate from this one crazed individual?

posted by: George on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

It is difficult to preempt something like this, comments above notwithstanding. Everything seems so simple in retrospect. Sure, we should have known he would do this. I don't think so. People are much more complicated than this.

Banning guns to stop this would make as much sense as banning Korean-Americans from attending university. One factor was just as much (or as little) a part of the situation as the other. And, please make sure of your facts before assuming you know about the US and our culture, especially those of you from abroad. The US is not what you see on TV, even on cable news.

Finally, my personal opinion is that everyone should be armed. Extreme? Maybe, but how many victims would this character have had if everyone were armed? Not more than one I'm thinking.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

"The gun-murder rate in America is more than 30 times that of England and Wales, for example."

British magazine so may be biased :)

Useless Sam Grant, you argue that the number of victims will drop if everyone is armed - this has to be true, i cant see how anyone could deny it.

The number of deaths from these attacks will equal the number of attacks times the average number of victims. Do you think that, if everyone from paacifist to drunken psychotic was armed, the number of attacks would remain the same? Some (esp. winging British liberals like myself) might suggest that it would rise.

posted by: George on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

I would like to suggest that it's not possible to predict which student will "go postal" based on prior troubled behavior, poetry, doodling in class, or whatever. Furthermore, there are too many ethical problems involved in treating someone, a la Minority Report, as if they were criminals before they do anything. Human behavior is far more complicated than that. But we CAN reduce the pool of troubled kids from which the the murderers are apparently drawn. A culture that glorifies violence, is permissive in child rearing, and emphasizes children's rights over their parents' seems to me responsible. I think it's interesting that the shooter is Korean by birth, since Koreans have a reputation for being conformists and diligent students. Was he corrupted by American culture, or was there something wrong with this kid from the beginning?

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

In all seriousness, I'm with OpenBorderMan on this. However.....

Re. Cho's state of mind:


If you read between the lines, some warning signs are there...

posted by: George on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

George, The sample of Cho's writing that you provided illustrates my point very well. Cho apparently sees himself as the John character, who has an extremely permissive mother and a disturbing amount of violence in his household. But predicting Cho's behavior from this would have been impossible.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Just for the record you are much more likely to be victimized by violent crime in the UK than in the US. Small relief to be stabbed instead of shot.

Regardless, i think its bad policy in general to try to craft law based on a rare, emotionally devastating event like this. Cooler heads need to prevail.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Mark - thanks. This blog entry confirms this and links to all the relevent data sources:


I believe the UK has a much higher crimerate than most of Europe, too. Er....spirit of free enterprise?....

posted by: George on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Why should colleges and universities' environment be different than society as a whole? I mean, if you've been in New York's public libraries, you see "crazies" all the time? And what are the standard procedure and criteria for reporting "weird" professors? Did anyone foresee the Unabomber? People need to relax and stop trying to wipe out all future tragedies by legislating and standardizing everything to death. There will always be violence (by man or nature) and misery. That's the vagaries of life.

posted by: Peter on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

While I was a TA at a top 10 private university, I had one student who was definitely in his own world. For example, when assigned a 3-page paper on X, he would turn in 15 pages on Y. And when I gave him "C"'s on these assignments (instead of the "F's" he deserved), he would stay after class and fight with me over it for as long as he could. My trick was to stick to the course rules & policies, try to find areas where I could be supportive, and urge him to go over my head if he felt he had a case. He eventually did go to the professor and claimed that I was "out to get him". Apparently the professor tore him a new one, and that was the end of that.

I stick with that strategy now as a professor: I have very clear and explicit rules, policies, procedures, and assignments. I stick to them mechanistically, while explicitly trying to help and support them otherwise. I try to appear very understanding and very sympathetic when problems arise, but I never bend the rules. (I also frequently & confidentially recommend the free therapists offered by my school's medical dept.) This way I minimize the number of students who feel that I'm biased. And I've been able to defuse some angry confrontations. They may think I'm a tough prof, but they don't seem to think I'm a jerk or have it in for me.

posted by: jprime on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

I've had four students in ten years whom I believed suffered from profound emotional/psychological problems. Three didn't seem to pose a threat to anyone and there was something so fierce about their determination to struggle to the B.A., with semesters off and incompletes for trips to hospitals, that I couldn't help but admire them.

One student, however, was so disturbing that in our department we still joke in a macabre way about expecting to see him return with an AK47 any day before retirement.

In each case I spoke to the Dean of Students about the student in question. In each case the Dean was not able to offer much help because the Dean interpreted the students FIRPA rights so conservatively that she felt she could not discuss the cases with me.

The scary student ended up stalking a student in the Department. I walked her over to the Dean and she laid out her experiences with the scary student. The Dean said there was nothing she could do unless the stalked student lodged a formal complaint. Members of the Department read the riot act to the scary student and we took turns tutoring him privately in order to protect the student he was stalking.

The thing was, as frightening as he was, his struggle to connect to reality was so painful to observe and, thus, I imagined, so far more painful for him to experience, that we were all motivated to try and help him even as we worried about the risks we might encounter as a consequence.

Throughout my experiences with these students I have been struck by how utterly unprepared I am to teach students with profound pyschological maladies and how utterly unsupported the professorate is as they struggle on a case by case basis to teach such students. I also think that the numbers of such students will be rising and colleges and universities would be well served to give some thought both to support for the professors and to fair processes for students whose problems are beyond the reach of ordinary deans' discipline and student conduct review.

posted by: Pudentilla on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

While I believe automatic and semi-automatic handguns should be banned, and other guns licensed, I think there is a bigger issue here with the health care and social services system in the US than there is with gun control. We now see a Virginia magistrate gave a ruling that ought to have resulted in Cho being sectioned/committed for a long time, namely that he was an imminent danger to himself and others, back in 2005. Yet nothing substantial or long-term was done about it; just in and out of the hospital like a revolving door and no ongoing monitoring.

Sigivald, on UK gun control I think a better question to ask is whether Blair's draconian handgun ban in 1997 added anything meaningful or useful to the restrictions on automatic handguns passed through Parliament by the Tories immediately after the Dunblane massacre in 1996. While the Tory gun control reform was necessary -- there is no legitimate non-law enforcement/non-military use for automatic weapons in my view -- Blair's "reform" did more to penalize legitimate gun owners than it did to penalize criminals, and indeed it was opposed by almost the entire Tory caucus and about a dozen Labour MPs as well. To summarize; 1987 -- Hungerford, many dead with assault weapon, assault weapons banned, no further assault weapon massacres. 1996 -- Dunblane, many dead with automatic handguns, automatic handguns mostly banned, no further automatic handgun massacres. 1997 -- Blair goes on authoritarian bender and bans all handguns, UK pistol shooting team has to train abroad, no further reduction in gun crime.

posted by: DB on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

"I've taught in the States and here in England. I have doubts whether America will pass effective gun control legislation with the powerful gun lobby to deal with. It's sad what's happening in America, but school shootings are rapidly becoming part of the American Gothic story."

It's worth remembering that the Virginia Tech massacre was not the deadliest school attack in U.S. history. The deadliest attack (now all but forgotten) killed 45 although not a single shot was fired. It had more in common with the 7/7 tube bombings (which gun control did not prevent) and suicide bombings in the Middle East:


posted by: Slocum on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Quote from above:

"The gun-murder rate in America is more than 30 times that of England and
Wales, for example."

Surely we should be comparing murders from all causes against murders
from all causes?

And then once we have that shouldn't we move even deeper and ask what
other factors might be playing a role other than the presence or absence
of guns?

Truly I'm curious. Is there anyone here that doesn't find the reasoning
represented by the quote above to be outrageously stupid and disingenous?

posted by: Mark Amerman on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]


Are you saying that, in an analysis of the effects of gun legislation, the quoted statistic is not useful? The statistic is what it says it is Ė Iím not sure what is "stupid" about it, please let me know.

If you mean that itís stupid to make an argument on gun control entirely based on that statistic, then I agree. I'm not sure who's making that argument tho.

If you mean that, in an analysis of violent crime (or even the causes of violent crime in relation to gun legislation), many other statistics will be of equal or greater importance, then i agree, as suggested by my other post above (addressed to you)

Re. the Economist being stupid and disingenuous, well, a lot of people (not me) would agree given their recent leader opinions - which, by the way, have in many of the most contraversial cases matched Daniel Drezner's (and probably many of here) as he and they, very much to their credit, have openly discussed...

see "My Black Mark on Iraq": http://www.danieldrezner.com/archives/003107.html

posted by: George on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Correction: the post reffered to is addressed to a different Mark...

posted by: george on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]


"Vagaries of life"? Give me a break. Colleges and unversities thoughout the country are vigorously revisting the issues of emergency preparedness on their campuses. While most experts agree that the large majority of potential attacks are not likely to be prevented, that's not a justification for complacency. I've been doing some research on these issues this week. Last semester, an L.A. County Sheriff who was taking my American government course often came to class uniformed and armed -- though disturbingly with her handgun unholstered, dangling from her pant pocket. I didn't notice it until the end of the semester. I notified Student Services, who contacted campus police, who then contacted the Sheriff's department. They spoke to the student and resolved the problem. Guns are not allowed on campus except for official public safety personnel. I was pleased with my administration's response, but our campus's emergency planning procedures more broadly -- crisis planning designed to respond to events such as those at Virginia Tech -- are not as well developed as I've read about from other campuses. I am currently providing some leaderhip on this issue on my campus. Here's something interesting I've found in my research thus far (see http://cecp.air.org/guide/guide.pdf or http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/):

Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools

Although most schools are safe,
the violence that occurs in our
neighborhoods and communities
has found its way inside the
schoolhouse door. However, if we
understand what leads to violence
and the types of support that research
has shown are effective in
preventing violence, we can make
our schools safer.

Research-based practices can help
school communities -- administrators,
teachers, families, students,
support staff, and community
members -- recognize the warning
signs early, so children can get the
help they need before it is too late.
This guide presents a brief summary
of the research on violence
prevention and intervention and
crisis response in schools. It tells
school communities:

-- What to look for -- the early
warning signs that relate to violence
and other troubling behaviors.

-- What to do -- the action steps
that school communities can
take to prevent violence and
other troubling behaviors, to
intervene and get help for
troubled children, and to respond
to school violence when
it occurs.

Sections in this guide include:

-- Section 1: Introduction: All
staff, students, parents, and
members of the community
must be part of creating a safe
school environment. Schools
must have in place approaches
for addressing the needs of all
children who have troubling
behaviors. This section describes
the rationale for the
guide and suggests how it can
be used by school communities
to develop a plan of action.

-- Section 2: Characteristics of a
School That Is Safe and Responsive
to All Children [Students]: Well
functioning schools foster
learning, safety, and socially
appropriate behaviors. They
have a strong academic focus
and support students in achieving
high standards, foster positive
relationships between
school staff and students, and
promote meaningful parental
and community involvement.
This section describes characteristics
of schools that support
prevention, appropriate intervention,
and effective crisis response.

-- Section 3: Early Warning
Signs: There are early warning
signs that, when viewed in context,
can signal a troubled child.
Educators and parents --and in
some cases, students -- can use
several significant principles to
ensure that the early warning
signs are not misinterpreted.
This section presents early
warning signs, imminent warning
signs, and the principles
that ensure these signs will not
be misinterpreted. It concludes
with a brief description of using
the early warning signs to
shape intervention practices.

-- Section 4: Getting Help for
Troubled Children [Students]: Effective
interventions for improving the
behavior of troubled children
are well documented in the research
literature. This section
presents research- and expert-based
principles that should
provide the foundation for all
intervention development. It
describes what to do when intervening
early with students
who are at risk for behavioral
problems, when responding
with intensive interventions for
individual children, and when
providing a foundation to prevent
and reduce violent behavior.

-- Section 5: Developing a Prevention
and Response Plan:
Effective schools create a violence
prevention and response
plan and form a team that can
ensure it is implemented. They
use approaches and strategies
based on research about what
works. This section offers suggestions
for developing such

-- Section 6: Responding to Crisis:
Effective and safe schools
are well prepared for any potential
crisis or violent act. This
section describes what to do
when intervening during a crisis
to ensure safety and when
responding in the aftermath of
crisis. The principles that underlie
effective crisis response
are included.

-- Section 7: Conclusion: This
section summarizes the guide.

-- Section 8: Methodology, Contributors,
and Research Support:
This guide synthesizes an
extensive knowledge base on
violence and violence prevention.
This section describes the
rigorous development and review
process that was used. It
also provides information
about the project's Web site.
A final section lists resources that
can be contacted for more information.
The information in this guide is
not intended as a comprehensive
prevention, intervention, and response
plan -- school communities
could do everything recommended
and still experience violence.
Rather, the intent is to provide
school communities with reliable
and practical information
about what they can do to be prepared
and to reduce the likelihood
of violence.

It's worth checking out. There was the gunman/hostage/murder crisis today at the Johnson Space Center in Houston (more of the vagaries if of life, I guess). Here's a relevant quote from the AP story:

"Right now we're trying to understand why this happened, how this happened," Mike Coats, director of the Johnson Space Center, said in a news conference. He said they had reviewed their procedures earlier this week because of the Virginia Tech shootings.

"But of course we never believed this could happen here to our family and our situation."

NASA spokesman Doug Peterson said the agency would review its security.

"Any organization would take a good, hard look at the kind of review process we have with people," Peterson said. [End of quote.]

Take care, Dan.

posted by: Donald Douglas on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

There was a time in this country when a family could call the sheriff, and a couple of deputies would handcuff a mentally ill person and take them to be admitted to a state mental hospital, and civil rights be damned.

This violated due process every which way, but it was a safety valve society could use to protect people. It protected the mentally ill and it protected everyone else from the mentally ill.

I don't think we want to revert to those days, but we may need to think through our current programs and emphasis on rights over safety (the shooter eneded up dead as well).

Difficult balance. Difficult issues.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Donald Douglas,

Right, the vagaries of life can be prevented if we vigorously revisit safety procedures enough. Let's introduce federal legislation against complacency. Once passed, senseless violence will be wiped out completely - at least for college campuses - and Murphy's Law will be repealed or at least downgraded to Murphy's Theory.

posted by: Peter on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Having worked at a state university, and seeing the shenanigans going on, I think one lesson folks might take out of this would be to bypass the campus police. That state university had a rape problem for several years which only ended when the victims started reporting the crimes to the county authorities. The campus police had been complicit in hiding the offences. Similarly, a large auto theft/smuggling ring had targeted this university and was stealing approximately 150 cars per month for almost a year. They'd take orders for cars, then steal matches, then they'd fake up some paperwork, and the cars would be in a container leaving south florida within a day. This ring was finally cracked when students had reported the thefts to the sherif dept in the county and it turns out the county to the south as well, where the majority of cars were being exported to the islands.

posted by: a different peter on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

Hey, two cheers for complacency, Peter! Let's just give up! We'll call it "Peter's Law on the Guaranteed Impossibility of Preventing Senseless Violence." Or maybe we could call it the "petered out" theory of disaster preparedness. Either way, pure brilliance! I'd bet the families and friends of the Virginia Tech victims would storm the gates to hear you give an (un)motivational lecture on how we need to "relax and stop trying to wipe out all future tragedies by legislating and standardizing everything to death." Dan's post simply asked "What, if anything, could or should universities do to improve security?" I thought I'd add something constructive -- I am working on my campus to help students, faculty, staff, and administration with preparedness. (Some have thanked me for providing a bit of leadership in a time of fear and uncertainty.) But hey, Peter's Law -- and its roots in nihilism -- offers an even better (fatalist) agenda!

posted by: Donald Douglas on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

I've never encountered a student who obviously seemed to threaten violence.

That said, I once encountered a student who was clearly very disturbed, and not coherent. It was during a late final exam in the Fall, the last Saturday before campus closed. The student was agitated, and approached me with grandiose visions after the examination. After we had talked for some time, I asked him where he was going that evening -- he said back to his campus room.

I was sufficiently worried that I wanted to do something. It being a Saturday evening, the campus nearly empty, I went to the campus police.

What I heard is probably familiar to many readers:
(1) they could not contact the student's parents.
(2) they could not contact the Counseling staff or anyone else, on the basis of my description.
(3) They asked me whether I believed the student was imminently likely to harm himself or others. If so, they said, they could have him arrested and placed in detention -- that is, imprisoned. That was the only option they had, and it required me to make an affirmative statement that the student was dangerously violent.

This is crazy. Any university that is not requesting students to sign a waiver of privacy in order to be able to contact some adult guardian in such situations is just waiting for a crisis -- not (gods forbid!) a shooting, perhaps, but some kind of crisis.

Some branches of our university are intensively reviewing their policies and procedures, but there's a lot more to be done -- and probably, state legislatures are one important place to be doing it. Let us hope, also, that the pendulum does not swing entirely too far the other way, either.

posted by: PQuincy on 04.17.07 at 03:06 PM [permalink]

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