Professors in the Crosshairs

Mary Hoeft describes what it is like to feel endangered by a student.

February 24, 2011

It was 7 a.m. on January 11, 2011. In an hour, I needed to be at a writing workshop. I sat down on the edge of the bed in my hotel room, and turned on the "Today Show." A photo of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s left hand appeared on the screen, embraced firmly by the right hand of her husband. Matt Lauer spoke of the brilliant, articulate woman, loved by all who knew her; all, that is, except one deranged young man who gunned her down in front of a Safeway grocery store. The scene then switched to the community college campus from which the shooter had recently been suspended.

The young man's math professor explained that he could see that something was clearly wrong with his student. A series of complaints to administrators resulted in the student's suspension. He would be allowed to return to school if he could demonstrate that he had undergone a psychological evaluation that offered proof that he did not pose a threat to others.

While my eyes remained focused on the television screen, my mind went back three semesters, to a student enrolled in two of my classes, a young man who sat in silence during discussions, black ski cap pulled tightly over his forehead. Whenever I called on him by name, he appeared startled, as though I had brought him back from some faraway place.

Frequently, during class, he would turn to the young woman seated next to him and engage in a conversation. After asking him repeatedly to focus his attention on what I was saying, I finally asked him to switch seats. I made the request three times before he got up and moved. As he slowly walked across the room, I saw on his face what I had seen only one other time in my teaching career: hate.

A few days after that experience, a good friend and I were having lunch in the Student Center. She expressed her concern about a student who made her feel uncomfortable. As she described his behavior, I asked, "Are his initials AC?" (Those are not the student’s real initials.) She nodded in amazement.

A week later, one of my students came to my office, visibly upset. She said, "Why would he write those terrible things about you -- you of all people?" I explained that I had no idea what she was talking about. She handed me a copy of the e-mail that the young man had sent to more than one hundred students on campus. One of the sentences in his letter said, "She needs to be gone." While the sentence was ambiguously phrased, I felt certain that I knew what he had intended to convey: "This professor needs to be gone from the face of the earth."

I went to my dean with a copy of the letter. He listened supportively to what I had to say and then expressed regret that he needed to be away from campus for the next few days. He said that he would turn the matter over to the director of student services. I said, "I fear for my life and the lives of others on campus. I do not believe that this student is mentally sound."

The following morning, the director of student services came to my office. He said that he had just met with my student and that the student had reassured him that I had nothing to fear. Although the director of student services felt reassured, I did not. I believed that this student posed a threat to me and to others.

When the dean returned to campus, he held a meeting with the student and me, warning the student that he had picked on the wrong professor. The dean said that I had the reputation of being "one of the best." My dean and director of student services acted in good faith. Both did what they felt they needed to do to treat both the student and me with the dignity that we deserved. As I left the dean’s office, my fear had not diminished.

I spent the next two months facing my student every day in class, wondering what he might do if he snapped. On days when he got up and walked out midway through class, I envisioned him returning with a gun. When the semester ended, the young man left campus. I haven't seen him since. But I continue to think about him. I continue to wonder where he is and how he is and if he is receiving mental help. For his sake, and for the sake of our community, I hope so.

I looked over at the clock on the nightstand and saw that it was 7:50 a.m. I turned off "Today," which was now showing blizzards on the Eastern Coast, and headed to my writing workshop.

Nine professors from across the state were in attendance. The workshop was led by a colleague from my university; a brilliant, outgoing young professor who, over the years, had become like a daughter to me. During the workshop, I could see that something was bothering her. At our first break, I asked her what was wrong. She said, "I just received a phone call from the director of student services. One of my former students was on campus today, shouting that she was there to kill me." After the student left campus, the director of student services called the police. In his phone call to my colleague, the director reassured her that the incident had passed, that he had talked to the young woman and she had told him that she didn’t own a weapon and wouldn’t be returning to campus.

I called our chief of police and asked whether the young woman who had threatened my colleague’s life had been found. He said that he was unaware of the situation. He referred me to his captain. The captain said that another officer was looking into the matter and that she would call me as soon as she was back at the station. Two hours later, the officer called. She said that she had contacted the young woman and that the student was apologetic. The student had reassured the officer that she had no intention of killing my colleague. Instead, the officer said that the student had come to the campus with a magical umbrella, one that had the power to cause my colleague to age 120 years.

The officer said, "The young woman assured me that she has an appointment with her psychiatrist tomorrow. She’s supposed to call me and let me know how the appointment went."

I asked the officer if it would be possible to get a 72-hour mental health detention and she explained that it wasn’t possible because she hadn’t had the chance to speak to the student while she was on campus. I said, "But another faculty member witnessed her behavior. He said that he felt threatened and certain that the young woman intended violence." The officer said, "I need to make that determination myself."

I continued, "What about a disorderly conduct charge?" The officer said, "I doubt that a judge would support that; not when the individual needs mental help."

By the time I finished speaking to the officer, everyone in the workshop was aware of what was going on. Several were sharing their own frightening stories: one, of a student who had written a threatening poem in blood on the wall outside of her office; another, of a student who had warned her that his psychiatrist said he had the type of personality that could cause him to snap and kill someone. He had come to her office to assure her that, if he did kill someone, it would be her.

All of these stories were told by articulate, intelligent women who had, at some point in their teaching careers, feared for their lives, only to be reassured that they had nothing to fear.

Professors and students do have something to fear. As a French professor, I am keenly aware of the fact that an entire French class was a target of the deranged young man at Virginia Tech. Those who know and love Representative Giffords are all too aware of the fact that a troubled young man destroyed the lives of many.

After having spoken with the officer who investigated my colleague’s case, I am certain what I will do if I ever encounter someone who threatens the lives of others. I will immediately dial 911. Then, I will do whatever my university’s threat assessment action plan tells me to do. Why will I dial 911 first? Because it is better to be safe than sorry. If the officer who investigated the "magical umbrella" case had arrived on campus before the student had left, she might have been able to determine that the student posed a threat to herself or others. The officer may have been able to take the student to a mental health facility where she would have received a thorough psychological evaluation.

My heart goes out to Representative Giffords and to all of the families of those who died or were wounded at the hands of a mentally deranged young man. Pima Community College took action by suspending a troubled student. That action, unfortunately, did not stop him from killing and wounding nineteen people.

Universities must be safe havens. Dialing 911 will be my first act as I attempt to keep students and colleagues out of harm’s way.

Editor's Note: Inside Higher Ed gave the University of Wisconsin-Barron County, where the author of the above essay teaches, the opportunity to offer its analysis on the events described, and that response is the following: "Our primary concern, as UW administrators, is the safety of our faculty, staff, and student body. We wholeheartedly support the recommendation of Professor Hoeft; if students, staff, or faculty believe that their lives or the lives of others are in danger, they should call 911. As the result of incidents such as that outlined by Professor Hoeft, the UW Colleges has implemented formal threat assessment groups on every campus. The role of these groups is to assess and coordinate responses to students whose behavior raises concern for serious health and safety risks to themselves or other members of the campus community. On the UW-Barron County campus, this group has extended its role to include faculty and staff education and to provide increased access for students to mental health counseling services. The campus has also held in-service workshops on various topics including victim advocacy and encourages an ongoing conversation regarding campus safety. The best way educational institutions can protect themselves is to be prepared. We would urge all educational institutions to review and update their emergency procedures."


Mary Hoeft is professor of communication arts and French at the University of Wisconsin-Barron County. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Barron County Restorative Justice Program.


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