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,