Friday, February 15, 2008

Weather Report from the Front Lines

Back in the early 1980s, when I decided that I’d be a college teacher, I never imagined that the next century would place me on the front lines in a war. It’s a strange sort of war, a war of attrition rather than a holocaust, and no one wears uniforms to indicate what side they’re on. Like any war, there are moments when the trenches are at peace. But there are also moments when spectacular violence erupts, when the cold war turns hot.

I’m talking about school shootings, of course. Our latest, as of this writing, was at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb. A man carrying a shotgun and at least one pistol stepped out from behind a curtained area in a large lecture hall and opened fire. Seven have died so far and a number of others were wounded, including the lecturer. The gunman killed himself before the police arrived. It happened on Valentine’s Day.

This wasn’t even the first school shooting of the month. On February 8, a nursing student at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—about an hour drive from me—shot and killed two fellow nursing students and then herself in a classroom on campus.

Certainly, every one remembers last year’s Virginia Tech shooting, where 32 died, and the worst High School shooting in history, at Columbine in 1999, at the turn of the century. But there have been shootings at many other schools. One that’s not on the list at that link occurred at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville a few years back. It happened in a building I frequented while in graduate school there.

I’m sure there are many reasons for the upswing in school violence and it’s unlikely to be due solely to one factor. For example, it’s clearly not due just to easy access to guns. Guns were readily available when I was growing up in the 1970s, more readily available than now. In fact, I took guns to school with me many times. I didn’t carry them into the school, but left them in the car because I was going hunting after school and didn’t want to go home first. Growing up in Arkansas you would frequently see trucks in the parking lots of schools, churches, and everywhere else with loaded gun racks in the back. No one got shot with those guns.

I’ve noticed that quite a few of the shooters have been graduate or professional school students, like in DeKalb and at Louisiana Technical College. I wonder if the stress of graduate/professional school, along with the fact that many (not all certainly) graduate/professional school students are not the world’s most socially apt individuals, could be a contributing factor. When you’re stressed, and you don’t have the social support network you need, bad things can happen.

What I really wonder, though, is how soon the next school shooting is going to take place. And where. And I wonder if maybe I should start requesting hazard pay from my school.


Monique said...

There is so much more pressure on todays youngsters than in my days. This is, of course, not an excuse for all that shooting, but a little understanding might just stop the next massacre.

Oh I don't know and I also can't pretend to understand.

Monique said...

Hey ... A first ... I'm first!

Lana Gramlich said...

There have been hundreds of studies done that clearly show the effects of modern media violence on our youth. Included here are just a few pages about it. Google TV violence kids & you'll get over 5 million more.
Just be careful, hon. I never thought I'd have to worry about you like I do (more every day.)

RRN said...

I must wonder at what point are these educated people, in our society , thinking this type of behavior can be the answer to anything ? When they are loading their weopons and preparing for slaughter , what are they thinking about ? Has this much hope been lost ? Is this what our society is teaching us ? Is this how we are grooming the youth in the United States ? When you lose all hope take yourself out of the picture and take as many people as you can with you ? That is what we are teaching the next generations ? What are any of us doing here and how can we start changing this ? We are all reponsible for this and we are all paying for it. Each one of us needs to need assessing change. As cliche as it may come across...We need to stop killing each other and start loving loving each other instead. This war...Will only ever be won in a single way...With love.

RRN said...

****Each one of us needs to *start*assessing change****

AvDB said...

In viewing it in a nature versus nurture standpoint, I feel there has to be something very wrong with the latter, here. Individually, it's easier to dismiss the potential societal causes: violence in media and video games, parental overindulgence, the sense of entitlement for just crawling out of the womb that has been instilled in these kids since day one... But, I think combined--in addition to a certain mental predisposition--constant exposure to the above is forming some sort of psychological cocktail, that, when combined with access to the right tools, is lethal.

But, I'm not the one with the brain-tapping degree, here. :)

ivan said...

I think Michael Moore pointed out something. Schools and colleges have an atmosphere of sweetness and light, while all around, they are building Titan missiles and tanks.
In the environs of Virginia Tech there is the CIA, and lord knows what graduates learn there.
Educators have either the wrong paradigm when it comes to teaching and learning, or the evil in American society is so widespread that it may have to be beaten with a stick.

The wild-eyed nihilist, deranged, will try to do this with a gun.
Home-grown Bakunins and Kropotkins.
Princes of anarchy. And the great damage that they do.

virtual nexus said...

Sounds like there are a lot of complicated factors in this - though doesn't sound like drugs is a primary one. There has been a security hike here in schools as a result, as far as is practical.

Some time after Columbine, my eldest got involved in helping a counsellor connected to the school set up a support website for families. Just a random net connection which came his way.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I have been receiving hazard pay for sixteen years . . . but that's in a prison environment.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I think it's so scary these days. I remember getting stalked by some psycho in my first semester of teaching (I had just turned 21 and was as dumb as the day is long) and really started to wonder if I could handle the pressures. That's BEFORE every loon on planet earth started shooting. Now I think I'm going to get out of it sometime soon given that a) I'm totally burned out (weird, but the better I get at writing, the worse in some ways I am as a teacher) and b) I'm really starting to dread something bad happening. I love my students, though, and would miss that part.

Charles Gramlich said...

Monique, somewhere there has been a breakdown in the support systems, it seems. Probably a lot of factors again, but parental disconnect may be some of it.

Lana, yes, I wouldn't deny that there is plenty of media blame to go around, but it's complicated of course. Parents using TV as a babysitter, for example, allows kids to see the stuff they shouldn't see instead of the stuff on TV that actually could be good.

RRN, I think when it comes to shooting they aren't "thinking" anything any more. They are just running on emotion.

Avery, I'm sure that's a major part of the complicated nature of the problem. I like the concept of a "cocktail." But we're still analyzing the cocktail to find the ingredients. Having been "treated" with meds seems to be one of the threads.

Ivan, it's true that schools sometimes try to come off as beacons of understanding when they can in reality be a dark brew of anger, resentment, cruelty etc.

Julie, I'm wondering if some "medical" drugs may not be involved. I'm hearing now that the shooter in DeKalb had recently gone off his "meds."

JR, good to hear from you. Yeah, from the stories you've told you certainly deserve it. I was hoping to avoid the need myself.

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, you must have been posting while I was commenting to others above. I've noticed something similar to you. The more into the writing I get, I don't think I'm doing as good of a job at teaching. It may be an interest thing, a focus of attention. I bet academics who get into their research strongly are the same way.

Middle Ditch said...

You could well be right with parental disconnect. I would not like to have young children today with all those no-no-no's the government is putting on parents and teachers. I don't mean bring back the cane, but I do remember that one good surprising smack brought my wayward child to a dead stop (and that was in a supermarket). Today I might end up in prison for doing that.

WH said...

Charles, I collaborated on a memoir for a teacher who lost 13 students to murder and campus violence during his career. He started an organization called SAVE--Students Against Violence Everywhere--which now has chapters in 46 states and 6 countries. He's been talking about this for years since he's seen firsthand what the results of violence look like. The unknown truth is that there is school violence somewhere every day of the year. Local writer Walker Percy said society has the "spiritual flu." I think he was right. We are morally adrift.

Travis Erwin said...

I know my postion puts me at odds with most, but I advocate certain school personall be allowed to carry. No, it will not completely stop these situations but it will deter some and the mass victim type of spree like at VT will not happen.

By the way I work for the Postal Service and used to be we were the most apt to go crazy.

Erik Donald France said...

Flak jackets for everyone!

Charles, I agree that guns are not the real culprit (and I'm a lefty). Not sure if media is to blame, regardless of studies.

Maybe the Devil is roaming about.

Seriously, and let's not forget the various mall shootings.

Miladysa said...

Another excellent thought provoking post.

I agree that there are a lot of factors that come into play.

One I think which plays a part amongst the others mentioned here is the size of the schools/colleges. It is easy to become lost in such environments, lost as in all aspects of the word.

Add to this the mix of violence from tv, games and today's consumer driven society where wearing the right 'designer clothes' counts more than doing the right thing + other ingredients and the timebombs we have created start to tick. .

Stay safe!

Donnetta said...

Charles, I work at the toughest, roughest school (preschool through 12) in the state of Oklahoma. Walking through our high school would take your breath away. I'm 5'2" and the students tower over me. I keep wondering when/if the day will come when something happens on our campus. We have a lot of unhappy kids from poor and crazy homes. And everything is so unpredictable.

Jillian said...

Wow, excellent post. Not sure what I can say that hasn't already been said. But I agree with previous commenters that these kids can easily feel lost in a college enviornment and depending on what their life was like before entering school, this can all contribute to eventual violence.

It's sad really, because even though I didn't always go to school in the best of neighborhoods, I always felt safe there. I can't imagine what students or teachers feel like now.

And yes, be safe!

Josephine Damian said...

Only seven more class periods to go for me, and I'm done with live classes for good.

It was creepy being in class yesterday right after yet another school shooting took place. I know a couple of students in my program have been kicked out for cheating/copying term papers - I always wonder about them - but you never know if anybody who seems "normal" at the workplace, mall, school, anywhere is only "normal" because they're on meds.

Back in the early 90's I was going to apply to the Iowa Writer's Workshop (I was delusional enough to think I'd be among the 2% of applicants they accept). I had my plane ticket, hotel - everything ready for my trip to check out the campus when my elderly father called and said he was paying me a visit here in FL that same week.

He wasn't the sort of man anyone said no to.

I was forced to cancel my trip and was quite bitter about it until I saw on the news that a grad student had gone on a killing rampage in the Univ. of Iowa administration building - on the same day I'd have been there picking up my application - it totally freaked me out. For once I did not resent my father intruding on my plans.

A year later, I finally went to Iowa City to attend a summer writing workshop and I met some of the survivors - brave folk indeed.

I don't envy the teachers who have to attend class year and after year, but when you look at mall and workplace shootings - we're all vulnerable in any public place.

Travis Cody said...

I can't even understand the mentality that tells someone that the best solution to his problems is to go and kill a bunch of random people and then kill himself, or force cops to do it.

The first time I heard of anything like this was almost 23 years ago...the mass shooting at a San Ysidro McDonalds restaurant. It didn't make sense then and it doesn't make sense now.

I recently read that more than 100 people have gone on mass shooting sprees since the University of Texas clock tower massacre in 1966.

I don't know, man.

Charles Gramlich said...

Middle-Ditch, I don't think a swat or two on the tuckus ever caused any permanent harm and it probably did a lot of good with some kids at some times. I just saw my brother get a whipping and that straightened me up pretty well.

Billy, there definitely does seem to be some kind of moral malaise. I sure wish we could get a handle on it. I worry so much for today's children.

Travis Erwin, I don't think that's a bad idea at all. Guns in the right hands could certainly deter them in the wrong hands.

Erik, there has got to be a number of causes and potential causes.

Miladysa, crowding and overpopulation are powerful stressors. A lot of research has supported that.

Donnetta, I actually feel safer teaching in college than I think I would feel in most high schools. I remember the losers I went to school with, and that was in a good town.

Jillian, thanks for visiting. There were fist fights at my high school but no weapon violence at all. I always felt pretty safe.

Josephine, that's really weird about having to cancel your trip and then there was a shooting. Makes you wonder about fate. And yes, you're right, we are vulnerable everywhere.

Travis, I can't wrap my head around that mindset either. It's just completely foreign to me.

Bernita said...

"Guns were readily available when I was growing up in the 1970s, more readily available than now."
Charles, thank you for that context which is so often ignored.
I'm with Travis, I can't quite understand the mentality that decides to kill a bunch of random people.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernita, the problem is that if people focus on one single strand, like trying to blame it all on guns, then we don't have a solution. People may feel they are doing something but it doesn't help the problem.

steve on the slow train said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
steve on the slow train said...

A friend of my daughter's lost a friend at DeKalb. I was driving back to Bloomington from Elkhart Thursday night and thankful that according to the news reports there had been no deaths except for the shooter. I found out differently the next morning.

I'm afraid you're right about the guns. Michael Moore made the point in "Bowling for Columbine" when he went across the border to Canada, where many people own guns, but the number of gun deaths is is far lower, even per capita.

This guy, like the Chinese grad student who killed off much of the University of Iowa Physics Department, had no problem with the background check.

Because these shooters get so much publicity, I suspect it makes killing sprees attractive to certain personalities. But I can't even begin to understand that kind of mentality.

writtenwyrdd said...

This is a horrible statistic, and, not to make light of it, I can't help thinking of those population and behavior studies of rats done back in teh 70s. The greater the population in the cage, the more violent the males and the more likely the females were to fail to protect their young/kill or harm them herself.

Besides, we are all so thorougly overstimulated and desensitized to violent imagery through the media. I'm not advocating censorship, but it does affect people after a while.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Charles, this is a scary post. Since I too teach at a college in Virginia, the Virginia Tech shootings were quite frightful at the time. Our doors in our classrooms are on time locks so no one can get in after class starts. But of course it doesn't help if the shooter is one of your students.

It does seem as if the thing that these shooters all have in common is social ineptness or not fitting in. I wonder if we as a society need to work on the cruelty of children so that from a young age these types of stereotpying and cruelty that popular cliques can create and worked at from a young age. That might be impossible, but it is a thought. And I completey agree with lana that violence in the media is having a huge effect on our youth.