Perhaps the most frightening and discouraging part of the problem of school safety can be found in the excellent research and writing of Professor Helen de Haven. Professor de Haven was a member of the founding faculty of the Appalachian School of Law in 1997, was the first Dean of Students at the school 1999-2000, and was at the school on January 16, 2002—the day Peter Odighizuwa shot and killed Dean Anthony Sutin, Professor Thomas Blackwell, and student Angela Dales—the mother of my oldest grandchild. De Haven is currently an Associate Professor of Law, John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, Georgia.
Professor de Haven’s article, “The Elephant in the Ivory Tower: Rampages in Higher Education and the Case for Institutional Liability,” raises disturbing questions about safety on this nation’s institutions of higher learning. Her article appears in The Journal of College and University Law, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Notre Dame Law School—the citation for the article is 35 JC&UL 503 (2009). Her words leave the reader with the impression that many of this nation’s schools approach the threat of gun violence on campus with apathy, confusion, and a denial of responsibility.
De Haven writes, “It is clear that 10 years after the shootings at Columbine; seven years after the killings at the Appalachian School of Law; two years after the massacre at Virginia Tech—as well as the scores of other school shootings along the way—far too many school officials, law enforcement personnel, and politicians remain mystified and perplexed over how to meet the threat of school violence.”
She further asserts that, “Though they are still relatively uncommon, school shootings in higher education are happening more frequently, and they are likely to increase unless we in the academy learn from our collective history. We need a new consensus about how best to keep ourselves safe without destroying academic freedoms and pedagogical values that best define us.” De Haven’s words were prophetic, Sandy Hook and Chardin, Ohio attest to that fact.
Professor de Haven’s words imply that many who run our academic institutions harbor one or both of the following: an inexplicable naiveté or a disregard for human life. I would also not rule out an element of bureaucratic incompetence and mediocrity. In fact, reading some of the explanations and statements put out by individuals defending the actions leading up to, during, and following the shootings at Virginia Tech University, I could not help but wonder, “Are these schools run by carnival shills?” For example, faculty members expressed fear for their personal safety to senior management—yet Virginia Tech denies prior knowledge that Cho was a threat.
Having read Professor de Haven’s words and examined the events surrounding school shootings here in Virginia, I can only say that unfortunately the academic community is far from reaching a consensus on how best to tackle the problem of keeping our schools safe. Here in Virginia, for example, school officials at Virginia Tech did not sufficiently heed the concerns and warning of faculty members. When schools ignore faculty expressions of fear for their personal safety, as well as for the safety of their students, something is terribly wrong!
Indeed, Professor de Haven asserts: “… universities have a legal duty as well as a professional obligation to make academic spaces as safe as they reasonably can for students. … We have not yet owned up to the ways in which academic cultures ignore the legitimate safety concerns of their faculty and students, disable appropriate support services, and enable dangerous and violent student behaviors.”
Professor de Haven is not the only academic to identify a problem with institutional responses to faculty complaints about threatening students. Professor Carol Parker at the University of Tennessee and her colleagues tell the following story:
“A law professor was being stalked and threatened with death by a student who was failing his class. He and his colleague went to the administration. Sadly, he later reported, ‘They simply stuck their heads in the sand and said nothing was happening. For the administration, this do-nothing strategy was a win-win situation. If they took action, they might get sued. However, in the small chance that the student actually carried out his threat and killed the professor, we figured that they would hire a cheaper faculty member.’” (Smith, Thomas & Parker: Violence on Campus Practical Recommendations for Legal Education) Carol Parker’s article is accessible free on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN).
Reflecting on this disgraceful attitude of a school administration, I could not help but think that this was the exact same way of thinking that typified the shootings at Virginia Tech and in many respects made the tragedy inevitable. (To be continued)