Last week's incidents at two-year institutions in Virginia and Texas point to safety challenges at institutions with non-residential students, multiple campuses and a fraction of the counseling resources available at four-year institutions.
I dreaded meeting with Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho in fall 2005. Though he had not made overt threats, his manner and affect seemed to be at odds with his whispered claim that he was being satirical when he wrote an accusatory poem about his classmates. But I was serving as chair of the English department at the time so it was my responsibility to deal with troubled students.
Eighteen months later, when Cho stormed the campus, killing 32 students and faculty, I realized how great the risk had been. And now, after Sandy Hook, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and others are suggesting that our response to threats like these should be to arm teachers. Some teachers agree and are arming themselves for school. Legislators in some states are trying to make it possible for faculty members at public colleges and universities to arm themselves on campus.
Teachers in Harrold, Texas, for example, have been permitted to carry weapons since 2008; and the March 2012 State Supreme Court ruling in Colorado means that those with a concealed carry license have the right to bear arms on the University of Colorado campus, though the university instituted new rules banning guns in dorms. Other states have similar provisions. Given the latest tragedy in Connecticut, this issue will be an even more contentious one in the future.
Although I support an increase in the number of resource officers on our campuses (i.e., trained members of law enforcement), particularly as we already have uniformed officers in about a third of our schools, and campus police and threat assessment teams working effectively with educators in many of our colleges, arming teachers in schools or colleges is a bad idea.
This conclusion is not based on a naïve romanticization of American education or an underestimation of the threat. I knew Cho could carry whatever he wanted in the backpack he planted emphatically at his feet when he sat down in my office. I knew his silence could be the silence of excruciating shyness or the kind designed to be menacing. There were times when his anger seemed palpable; his agony vengeful; his misogyny apparent.
At what point, however, does a professor draw a weapon? In her office? In a packed classroom? When the student-suspect reaches down to get something from his backpack? At what point does a perceived threat become an actual one? How many mistakes are we liable to make, and at what cost? How often will we be tempted to demonize difference because it scares us?
Were Cho to have stormed into my office, guns blazing, wearing his customary blank expression, his sunglasses and baseball cap obscuring his face, what good would a gun have done unless I already had it at the ready? If he had been armed with a 9mm Glock — one of the weapons he used 18 months later in his attack on a dorm room and classrooms at Virginia Tech — would I have needed a semiautomatic as powerful as his to have had a chance of defending myself and my staff? If he’d had about 300 bullets, as he’d had when he launched his attack on the campus, would I have needed a similar cache in my office drawer?
Should teachers’ guns remain loaded in their desks at all times, or should they be carried in handbags or holsters? Many of these weapons are heavy and difficult to conceal. How would teachers disguise the fact that they are packing heat from their students? How often would a nervous teacher misinterpret someone’s gesture and discover, too late, that it isn’t a gun he’s pulling out from his backpack after all? It’s the novel he’s written and wants her to read.
Many things are not made manifest to us before guns are drawn, even though we may suspect something is deeply amiss. In 2005, two years before his rampage, Seung-Hui Cho was still a student, not a student-shooter. He was still willing to seek help, still hoping to become a novelist. He was angered when I repeatedly urged him to go to counseling, but he also realized he needed to go. He sought out help, as he’d told me he would. Tragically, he was not able to get the counseling and medication he needed, even though he was later ordered by a judge to receive outpatient treatment.
Shootings like the ones at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook Elementary — reside at the intersection of many thorny, often competing issues including gun violence, accessibility to long-term mental health treatment, privacy laws, and an individual’s civil rights. And though common sense tells us we need more security in our schools, we can’t blast our way to a solution.
College professors and K-12 teachers are not law enforcement officers. It’s our responsibility to notice students who are seriously troubled and bring them to the attention of professionals trained to respond in crisis situations, which is why I reported Seung Hui-Cho to various units on campus. In cases where there is no record of violence, however, even the most experienced teachers, counselors, and law enforcement personnel cannot easily predict whether or not a threat is imminent. But we can detect extreme anguish, consuming loneliness, and unbridled anger in young people and try to intervene before these become toxic.
The opportunity for meaningful intervention on the part of educators is in the years, months, and days before the gun is drawn. And though some of us will try and fail, the period leading up to a tragedy like this is still the time when peaceful intervention is most likely to succeed.
A lone teacher should never be asked by the NRA or anyone else to use a lethal weapon to save her students. The chance of failure is far too high, the cost far too great. Teachers and students must be empowered by society to learn together in peace. We have a right to expect this, and a duty, as educators, to demand it,
I imagine you have heard by now that the National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning, noting the possibility of considerable snowfall for our region beginning this evening. However, because of differing weather models, which call for anywhere from a dusting to more than a foot, we cannot accurately predict the university’s course of action at this time. This might amount to only a minor weather event.
We will make an announcement regarding tomorrow’s classes and operations by 6 a.m. Please stay tuned for email updates.
Thank you for your attention. Enjoy your evening.
Acting Director of Campus Safety, Facilities Management, Transportation and Emerging Auxiliary Enterprises
Dear Campus Community,
Updated Weather Service models are predicting more significant snowfall than earlier reports. Some are calling for upwards of a foot of snow. Still, there is a very good chance that this storm will amount to only a modest total, so we can assume for now that classes and operations will be on a normal schedule tomorrow.
Thank you for your patience.
Acting Director of Campus Safety, Facilities Management, Transportation and Emerging Auxiliary Enterprises
As you can see, the snow has already begun, well ahead of predictions. This may indicate that snow totals will exceed projections or, perhaps, that the storm will depart the area earlier than expected.
Again, we will update you regularly regarding campus operations and tomorrow’s schedule.
Please drive home safely.
We now have approximately two inches of snowfall and are bracing for a major event. The latest Doppler model suggests we may experience as much as 12-18 inches by morning. But hey, this is New England, and we hearty types are used to it. Typical winter around these parts.
Please stay tuned for updates and possible cancellation notices.
A quick storm update. Snowfall totals are now predicted to exceed two feet. Visibility is zero, and major highways are closed. Looks like I’m stuck here on campus for the duration. At least I’ll be able to attend to emergencies should they arise. I bet those of you who made it home are happy.
The storm brought down a small tree, which hit a transformer and knocked out power to campus. Normally, utility crews would already be on the scene, but it’s just too darn sloppy out there. Repairs will have to wait until at least the morning. Thanks to generators, some buildings are running with limited power. Still, it’s plenty cold in my office, in case you care.
The blizzard rages on, and I’m still freezing. It’s not like I can sleep, anyway, because I don’t have a cot in my office. Even the groundskeeper from "Rudy" had a cot, for cripes sake. So I’ve spent a good bit of time wandering through the semi-lit academic buildings for kicks and giggles. By God, those faculty offices are a wicked mess. What’s wrong with you people? How about spending some of your ample free time (like, you know, the whole summer) tidying things up? Would it kill you?
Dang it’s cold in here. Maybe some of you who lost power know what I’m talking about.
Nothing much going on except a few crazy frat boys running around half naked throwing snowballs at each other. Must be smashed. Bet their parents are really proud. Rite of passage, my keister. In my day, the only rite of passage was joining the Marines. Today’s generation? A bunch of spoiled, self-important brats. Hey, but they pay our salaries, right?
In case anyone gives a damn, we still haven’t made a decision about tomorrow’s classes and work schedules. Yeah, as if you’re all awake reading this.
Did I tell you dilettantes how friggin’ cold it is in here?
So I managed to scrounge up a small space heater, which is barely enough to keep my toes warm. But heck, who am I to complain? I have a steady job, and I make a decent living serving you people. Oh yeah, I make the big bucks and have the plush office and perks like you upper management geeks. Not. Hope you’re warm and snuggly in your McMansions, dreaming of your ski trips and fancy dinners and “conferences” in exotic places. I’ll just stick around here and take care of campus. No worries. Sleep tight.
And for the record, we still haven’t heard about tomorrow’s schedule. Are we closed? Can anyone make a decision?
Anybody awake yet? Are we closed or not? (As if we don’t know.) No, let’s give it another hour and a half. Maybe by then the sun will be shining and it’ll be 70 degrees, and the birds will be singing and sugar plum fairies will be prancing around campus. And I won’t be stuck here anymore, freezing my hind to the bone. Yup, I’ll wait. I have nothing better to do.
Have I told you how much I love this place?
Dear Campus Community,
Due to the severity of the overnight snow storm, the university will be closed today. All classes are canceled. Essential personnel should report to work as scheduled. Please stay tuned for additional email messages, and be sure to consult the university’s website for updates.
On a personal note, it’s been a pleasure keeping everyone apprised of our situation during the night. I enjoyed working with each and every one of you over the past couple of years, and I wish you all the best. I am officially announcing my retirement and heading to Boca.
All this is someone else’s problem now. God I hate snow.
Former Acting Director of Campus Safety, Facilities Management, Transportation and Emerging Auxiliary Enterprises
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.
This week, members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III will vote on a medically controversial and unsubstantiated policy regarding sickle cell trait (SCT) testing for Division III athletes. Based on the current medical literature, the delegates would be wise to vote against the proposal.
The policy stems from a 2009 settlement by the NCAA of a lawsuit involving the death of a Rice University football player. The death was attributed to SCT, and the NCAA began recommending that athletics departments confirm SCT status in all athletes, if it is not already known, during their required medical examinations. While individuals can opt out if they agree to education and sign liability waivers, mandatory SCT education and confirmation of SCT status of athletes began in Division I in 2010, and in Division II in 2011. The current NCAA proposal would extend the policy to Division III starting in 2013.
SCT is a genetic condition involving red blood cells. Unlike sickle cell disease, which can have serious health consequences, SCT individuals do not typically experience any symptoms and may not know that they have SCT. The red blood cells in individuals with sickle cell disease or SCT can become deformed and lead to health problems. This is known as sickling, and is far more common in individuals with sickle cell disease.
Recent reports in the medical literature have suggested that SCT may contribute to death in athletes. The topic remains highly controversial, with some authors suggesting that exertional sickling has killed or led to collapse of many athletes and military trainees. Other authors disagree, and suggest that SCT screening is unnecessary and may be harmful, and that implementing education and universal safety measures would protect all athletes.
Hematology and sports medicine experts are correct in not endorsing mandatory testing because the pathophysiology of SCT-associated death remains unknown. The well-intentioned pro-SCT testing argument is based on limited information obtained from autopsies and case reports, and may not have fully investigated other potential contributors to the athlete’s demise. The presumption that SCT contributed to the athlete’s death because deformed/sickled cells were found at autopsy may not be accurate. The problem is that the presence of sickled cells in postmortem tissue specimens from a person with SCT does not guarantee pre-mortem sickling. Red blood cells can become deformed in SCT patients when they are deprived of oxygen. Since this is exactly what happens when a person dies, we might expect to see sickled cells in an autopsy of a patient with SCT. As one author wrote: “Sickling seen in postmortem samples is most likely an artifact of death.”
More importantly, good medical policy should rest on a foundation of evidence-based medicine. Unfortunately, well-controlled, hypothesis-driven prospective studies on SCT and exertional collapse are lacking. More research is needed to understand the pathophysiology of death in athletes with SCT, and determine whether screening high-risk populations reduces mortality. It is particularly interesting that two recent papers on SCT, co-authored by the NCAA’s director of health and safety, David Klossner, and published after the 2010 NCAA Division I SCT rule went into effect, have concluded that additional research is needed to understand the value of screening for SCT in athletes.
Epidemiologists have noted that an extremely small number of deaths in a highly prevalent carrier state implies that other genetic or environmental factors play a role. SCT is considered a fairly common condition, yet only a small number of athletes have presumably succumbed from SCT over the past 30-40 years. The reported deaths also have a high predilection for Division I football players. As one study noted, all but 2 of 19 deaths associated with SCT in NCAA athletes since 1973 have been in Division I football players. There were no deaths related to SCT in Division III athletes, including Division III football players.
The proposed testing method has also raised concerns. Due to cost, the NCAA is recommending that schools use a blood test that experts consider to be inferior and less accurate than more expensive methods. The NCAA-proposed test does not have the ability to identify other forms of blood disorders. False negative tests would provide false reassurance, potentially putting athletes at even greater risk. Finally, athlete and military recruit deaths have occurred despite knowledge of sickle cell trait in the individual.
While the NCAA should be praised for its interest in athlete safety, it has misrepresented medical data in its quest to mandate SCT testing for all athletes. For example, in the October 2012 NCAA DIII monthly update the NCAA stated that: “Another study, published in 2012, concluded that student-athletes with sickle cell trait have a relative risk of exertion-related death that is 37 times higher than those without it.” However, the original paper notes that: “All deaths associated with SCT occurred in black Division I football athletes. The risk of exertional death in Division I football players with SCT was 37 times higher than in athletes without SCT.”
That is an important distinction when considering a screening program that would annually affect thousands of athletes. The same NCAA Division III update also stated that “13.6 percent of Division III schools that participated reported removing a student-athlete with sickle cell trait from a competition, practice or workout because they were concerned they may be developing a dangerous condition secondary to their sickle cell trait status.” However, supporting evidence that patient symptoms were due to complications from SCT is not provided, and their condition cannot be attributed to SCT. The NCAA’s assertion that “the knowledge of a student-athlete’s sickle cell trait status can lead to appropriate precautions and interventions” is not supported in the available medical literature and remains controversial.
The cost of an SCT screening program, while secondary to an institution’s interest in protecting its students, must also be considered. The NCAA-published basic solubility test costs between $8.50 and $32.50 per test. The $8.50 test does not include phlebotomy costs, which would add $5 to $10 per test. Some schools do not have easy access to the lab associated with the NCAA pricing and are looking at costs as high as $75 per athlete tested. Administrative costs associated with tracking results and compliance have not been included in the NCAA analysis and could place a significant burden on DIII sports medicine departments, which typically have fewer resources than other NCAA divisions. Most importantly, the cost of an unproven screening program may divert funding away from other important health issues.
Rather than succumb to fear or the NCAA’s institutional momentum, the Division III delegates voting on the SCT screening measure should base their vote on sound scientific principles and recognize that many caring and responsible physicians and medical organizations have opposed screening for SCT. The NCAA has exaggerated existing medical data and is promoting use of an inferior screening test that may lead to false reassurances.
The delegates would be wise to pass a measure that promotes further research on the role of SCT in exertion related collapse and death, emphasizes education of athletes around SCT and other issues that may cause harm, promotes a voluntary testing process that includes a personal discussion between an athlete and their physician, and most importantly, adopts universal safety precautions and measures to enhance the safety of all athletes.
Mark Peluso is medical director and head team physician at Middlebury College. Paul Berkner is the medical director and team physician at Colby College. Both are active in national sports medicine and pediatric groups.