Today is the anniversary of the day Gabby Giffords and others were shot in Tuscon, AZ by a former college student. The shooting occurred after Jared Loughner was found to be dangerous to himself and others by Pima Community College. The college banned him from returning to school until he was cleared medically to come back.
The college acted appropriately to protect itself. However, school administrators who banned him from campus put the rest of the community in danger while protecting Pima. How? They failed to notify local law enforcement agencies of his behavior. If the school had conferred with Tucson police and the Sheriff’s Department, would this shooting have been prevented? Would law enforcement have allowed Loughner, deemed dangerous to himself and others, to wander the street or would steps have been taken to protect society as well?
This week we also witnessed the incident of troubled Jaime Gonzales, a middle school student from Brownsville, TX. Tragically, after police directed him 10 times to drop the weapon he was holding, Jaime was killed. Later, officers determined that the gun which terrorized over 1,000 faculty members and students was a non-lethal pellet gun. The gun did not have the bright orange marking on the muzzle required by federal law to avoid just such a tragedy.
There are many more stories which can be told since the Columbine High School massacre. On that day, law enforcement learned time is not an ally. They waited too long for so-called experts to arrive on scene to provide help and many people died. Columbine was the birth of what is known as the Active Shooter movement. Law enforcement recognized that waiting was no longer an option and that a formalized approach to defeating the Active Shooter had to be developed.
Since then, Lt. Dan Marcou has enlightened the profession with the Five Stages of the Active Shooter. The first stage is when young men, as nearly all the shooters have been, fantasize about what they will do. Law enforcement can address the shooter when he becomes active, but education experts, police, and families must help the young person before that fantasy stage is ever realized.
Warning signs of unstable behavior must be taken seriously by peers, parents, counselors, and school administration. The Virginia Tech shooter, as well as Jared Loughner, showed numerous signs of emotional distress and apparent difficulty in the thought process. Classmates of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech Shooter, reported concerns about his bizarre behavior. Fellow students in Loughner’s classes were very concerned, as were several of his instructors.
Ben McGahee, Loughner’s math instructor, had to report his behavior numerous times to get an appropriate response from the school. And then his contract as an adjunct was terminated because he discussed the experience. On June 5, 2010, McGahee stated in an email to college personnel:
“I talked with Pat Houston on Friday,” he wrote. “It looks like the police are not going to follow up with Jared. I really think someone should be in the classroom to assess his behavior. I have no idea what he is capable of doing. I just want our class to be safe. Thanks.”
Where is the disconnect? Most college age students are considered adults chronologically. Developmentally, many parents would disagree. However, college staff have procedures in place which prevent college students’ information from being shared with parents, even when parents pay the tuition.
Students are suffering and confused, possibly with mental-health issues, and because of privacy issue, the college can only respond if the student asks for help. For many reasons, universities are reluctant to intervene when a student is acting odd but not yet violent. So at the time when the student may be entering Lt. Marcou’s fantasy stage, longstanding university policies tend to support doing nothing unless the student reaches out for assistance.
However, he may be fantasizing about harming people, if not already in the planning stage. And woe to those faculty members who try to intervene, because like McGahee, they may find that their contract is not renewed. Seeing others lose their position with a university serves only to perpetuate inertia. For its part, Pima College punished an instructor who spoke out . Where does that leave us?
Gabby Giffords is strength and courage clothed in flesh. Her heartbreaking smile became known worldwide because the system failed to appropriately intervene with Jared Loughner. Jaime Gonzales is the epitome of a youth tragedy; a school band member dead over a pellet gun. Law enforcement, education experts, families, and counselors have to cooperate to reach these young people before death, terrible disability, and chaos affect lives which could be saved by a simple intervention before things get so bad.
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