Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Not Your Typical Campus Shooting"

That's a quote from the head of the Purdue University Police Department during their final press conference the day of my campus's shooting, Tuesday, December 21, 2014. By this, he meant that it wasn't a case of a person going in and randomly firing at people- the perpetrator went in, sought out the target, fired, then surrendered. This officer and the other people answering questions never said it out-right, but they danced around "pre-meditated" whenever talking about the shooter's actions.

This piece comes in two parts. The first, being my direct response to the university itself. Keep in mind, I wasn't on the campus- I was literally locking up my apartment to leave for my office when the first alert went out. The second will be my more general thoughts on these acts of violence and  what they say about us  as a society and culture, and what I think we can do to fix it, or at least make it less bad.

PART I: Poo-Poo Purdue

I’m sure anyone reading this from Purdue itself is aware of the timeline of events, so let me just break down my thoughts, here. When it comes to the on-the-ground response, the emergency teams did a superb job of handling the situation. They were on the scene within minutes, had apprehended the suspect even before the university had finished sending out its initial wave of alerts, and expediently evacuated the EE building, as well as helped get anyone unaware of what was transpiring indoors and out of harm’s way. My hat goes off to Purdue’s police and fire departments, as well as those of West Lafayette. And my thanks to all of the first-responders on the scene. Heart-felt and  sincerely.  

Now, the bad news. I find it… disconcerting, at best, that I, as a member of the Purdue community, was given conflicting information on my safety during the day: I was told in a text it was okay to move around as normal at about 1:30, and then again at 1:45, but the website referenced in those texts told me the opposite, that campus  was  still on lockdown- and  the  website remained as such until nearly 3pm. More than one person confused about what to do texted me, asking for my advice. (And that advice was, of course, stay inside- better  safe than sorry.) The text came pretty quickly, at 12:12, but what little info we got didn't add up very well. And on that note...

There was really just so little information sent to me directly, too- what’s up with that? I would have felt better getting the info from Purdue, not from checking out news websites because I happened to have access to the Internet, a circumstance not everyone else would have been in. My mom had more up-to-date info from watching CNN than I had from Purdue. That’s just wrong- I and every other member of Purdue’s community should have had been given real-time updates from Purdue. Our safety and emotional/mental well-being were on the line. 

Also, why take the surrounding buildings off lockdown if police are still searching and patrolling? Friends of mine on campus said there were still choppers circling after the all-clear was given at 1:30, and I finally got antsy and had to turn off the computer after over an hour of  listening  to police continue to search new campus locations and dig deeper into suspicious activities via their radio streaming site. If the police weren’t done checking the campus out, why let people wander around? What would have happened if  this shooter had not, in fact, been acting alone and someone else was hurt before the police finished their checking all the other buildings? What if they had all-cleared it too soon and there were more casualties?

Here’s another problem: I heard from a few people stuck in classes that their professors kept trying to teach during the whole thing, and I know of fellow grad students with  TA positions for classes that take place during the 3 and 4 hours that had to go to said classes- and, surprise surprise, more students stayed behind than  went. What compels a prof to go ahead with class on a day like that? I don’t think this demonstrates heroism or dedication- I think it’s short-sighted, narcissistic, and dangerous. If you think what you’re teaching is so important that it’s worth risking the lives of your students, you don’t deserve to be a professor (or instructor) in front of those students. And if some of these professors kept at it because  they  genuinely  don’t know what “shelter-in-place” means, then Purdue has some serious training it needs to do for its faculty- because even if the students somehow avoided it in school (which maybe international students, okay, but kids that grew up in the States have no excuse, really, unless maybe homeschooled…?), the people in charge of the classrooms should know that “shelter in place” means close and (if possible) lock the doors, close any blinds, keep quiet, etc. In drills, sure, keep the lights on, but for crying out loud  there was an actual shooter on campus on Tuesday. They should have closed the doors and blinds, turned the lights off, and awaited further instructions from the university. This was NOT a drill. A Boilermaker DIED, and you kept lecturing. Think about that. And be grateful for the tenure system and that I'm not in charge of Purdue, because if I was Purdue's president and I heard you had tried to keep jabbering at your students (and were probably befuddled or put-off by them, gasp, not paying attention to you), I would do everything I could to fire your ass.

I think the worst is that classes weren’t immediately cancelled for the rest of the day. If “they” knew someone was even just injured in a shooting, let alone lost their life, it would be “respectful” to cancel classes as soon as the info came out, not four-and-a-half hours later. Plus, they wouldn't then have had to go back and tell faculty to pretend classes the day of the shooting never took place the next day in an email ("Of course, we will all need to make adjustments to ensure that no faculty and students are penalized because they were unable to teach or attend class in the aftermath of yesterday’s terrible events. You will need to inform students of your plan to address this unforeseen circumstance. In particular, you should inform your class that you will not be counting the results of any quiz or attendance given for yesterday’s session, and that they will not be held accountable for any material covered."). Purdue ret-conning, back-peddaling, whatever you want to call it- Purdue cancelling classes over four hours later is deplorable and tactless, and the reminder to faculty not to hold students accountable for the  day of the shooting shouldn't be necessary (on its own and  also in conjunction with what I said about profs insisting on holding class between 2 and 4:30). This was no false alarm- someone died, and we knew that hours before the “discussion” (what the provost said they started having once they knew someone was hurt) amongst administrators led to canceling class. So why does it need “discussion” to cancel classes the rest of the day when someone is killed on campus? Discussion? I’m not remotely the only person at least surprised by this, if not flat-out appalled. This is an opinion piece, and my opinion is that canceling class for the rest of the day when there’s a shooter on the campus should be protocol, not the result of a “discussion.” Sure, maybe what happens the next day can be something the old boys’ network can debate, but expecting students to go to class when they’ve just been on lockdown and oh yeah, someone was shot and killed- and then expecting them to be top-notch is also narcissistic, or at least short-sighted- and the  latter is why  those same people had to send an email excusing anyone that, understandably, didn't go to class or didn't do all that well while there. It's just... Ugh. It was tactless for them to wait that long to cancel, and fumbling and pathetic that they had to excuse it after-the-fact. Disgusting. I can't wrap my head around why the first move wouldn't be  to cancel classes, I honestly can't. All I can think of is it's the bureaucracy wanking off again and taking itself too gorram seriously- which puts a bad taste in my mouth, because  that'd mean the fat-cats cared more about their own authority and "channels" or whatever than the well-being of their students. And even practically speaking, the utility in holding class an hour after a shooting would be small enough to render it nonexistent, or  even negative (because, no doubt, without the reminder not to, profs would hold students accountable for the material from that day because they "held class" as "normal," never mind  that  no "normal" student would be  able to function "normally" in class right after a shooting). 

I hope to God there isn't a next time. But in preparation, protocols need to be changed: 

1) The text alerts need to be in-sync with website and email updates. Conflicting information could get someone hurt.

2) DO NOT  give  an all-clear until police  are done searching buildings. The nearby  area may  have been clear, but how could they be certain there wasn't another  shooter? They wouldn't be  able to report that until they had finished their larger sweep, so let that happen before letting people go about their way. 

3) Cancel classes for the rest of that day the moment a legit report of a shooting is confirmed. I am still trying to comprehend why this  is even necessary to say. 

4) Make sure all faculty and staff have been through their own  shelter-in-place drills, or at least told what to do if  it happened for real, even if only during  an orientation  training of some sort for newbies. That way, even if  their students don't know what it means, they will.

5) Figure out a way  to penalize faculty that end up not doing the whole  "shelter-in-place" thing properly in the case of a real threat, once the threat is over. Again, drills are one thing, but actual, genuine threats are another, and they need to be taken seriously. So whether it's making them pay fines or do university or community service, or I dunno, mess with their sabbatical or something... I don't care. Just make it clear that they're in deep doo-doo for endangering their  students- because that's what that behavior means: Endangerment.

6) Send more updates, via text and/or email. Sure, some stuff needs to be kept private for a while, but letting the Purdue community know what kind of progress the police are making, what the suspects are up to, etc., and as immediately as possible, needs to happen. Again, I should have heard from Purdue, not CNN, that the suspect had been apprehended. 

PART II: Gun Control, Mental Health, and the Intersection of Ableism with Capitalist Individualism

So here's where it'll get rather controversial. Every time we have a shooting, the focus is always on the guns. Guns, guns, guns. And sometimes, the "crazy" bogeyman myth creeps up,  too, wherein the shooter is painted as a psychopathic freakjob that finally loses it and that's that. As if it's a random, one-time, isolated incident.

And while sure, the Newtown guy wasn't in cahoots with the Virginia Tech guy, who had nothing to do with the Columbine kids... There is a tie binding all of these shootings, and any other time when a person has walked into a building and shot anybody, whether it's one targeted person like what happened at Purdue, or a whole butt-load of random victims, like Virginia Tech. 

It's mental illness. Improperly cared for mental illness, I should say.

And let me say right now, I'm not saying it's the "crazy peoples'" fault. There's a sad, painful note of truth to the, "I couldn't take it anymore!" line that's supposed  to be funny or offhand (like when Carmine Falcone uses it after faking a suicide attempt in Batman Begins)- for whatever reason, these people reach a tipping point, and their moral compass gets broken, and they either don't remember that hurting other people isn't okay, or they cease to care. 

What I see going on is people who would benefit from quality mental health services don't get them, and without the proper coping mechanisms and lifeskills needed to function without hurting people, they snap. See, here's the rub: Western, and especially American society, has this weird, counter-productive stigma on mental health services. And I attribute this, at least in part, to our rugged individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-boostraps wet dream we can't, on the whole, let go of. Because if we admit we have depression or mental health issues, let alone seek help for it, we're admitting we  aren't good enough to make it on our own - and the whole point of the American Dream is to make it on your  own, without help from anyone. Depression, anxiety, mental health problems, they're seen and treated as weakness. We blame the people who have them for not taking care of themselves, for being  too sensitive; we tell them to "get it together," to "keep it to themselves," to try harder. I love this image from the blog Robot Hugs

There are myriad others like it on the interwebs, but the point is the sorts of things that get said to people with mental health issues are being said to people with entirely physical ailments (if you can't tell, by the way, the one in the orange shirt is  shooting insulin or something, not  stabbing their hip with a nail- it took me a few seconds to see it, too, don't worry)- and the point is  to see that those statements are ridiculous in those contexts, and, really, ridiculous in the context of mental or emotional fragility, too. 

And don't those sound kind of like the individual liberty, ra-ra, capitalism rhetoric we can't seem to turn down in this country? Messages that we aren't tying hard enough when we're stuck in a minimum wage job, that our individual circumstances don't matter if we're unemployed... The way we treat (and don't treat, yup) mental illness is a part of that masturbatory obsession with personal responsibility. That it's somehow someone's own fault if they're depressed, just as how it's their own fault if they're in need of social assistance. Context? Psh. Factors  out of their own control? Nonexistant- every person is in charge of their own destiny! 

So then what? Well, just like how our pathetic excuse for a "welfare" system comes with all sorts of public  shame and stigmatization, so too does receiving  mental  health services. And, just as how the former is major hard to get, quality mental health services are hard to find, too. I think generally, our personal feelings are supposed  to be private, and it's not up to the government or society to help us out- because by golly, the government has NO RIGHT to tell me what I should be doing!

You: Wait, but providing the option for  mental health services isn't telling people what to do, it's just giving them somewhere to go, right?

Society: NO! If there were quality mental health facilities and services everywhere, free and available to the public, they'd just get backlogged with people taking advantage of it, and we'd create a culture of sissies that suck their thumbs and can't take the slightest setback in their lives!

It's basically  the same argument against a public healthcare system, and I'd say even against paid family leave and basically any form of financial assistance.

But what sets it apart is that during any "discussion" revolving around the question of the kinds of mental health services in the U.S., there's always this accompanying assumption that people with mental health issues are broken, under-par; that they don't measure up and thus aren't worth it, anyway. Why bother if they're already not good enough? And now, if you know me, you prolly see where I'm going and why it's ableist: There's an assumption that they'd be whole and Good if they didn't have their mental, emotional, etc. disabilities, see.  See? 

While it's hard to talk about the "Disability Community," since that doesn't really exist, I do believe, from my experience on the ground in services for the disabled in myriad ways, it's the invisible disabilities, the non-physical that get stigmatized in such a way that leads to the ailments going entirely untreated. It's a lot harder to ignore a physical disability or to blame someone with one for having it, but mental and/or emotional ones? Well what "causes" depression? What "causes" anxiety? People get blamed for "letting them happen," while nobody would really ever be accused of "letting" theirself get hit by a car or be born with CP.

Story time (sort of): Every  semester I've taught (so far- we'll see later), I've had at least one student come to me after their first quiz about disability accommodation. And the reasons they wait are always the same: They were "afraid" to tell me or that their peers would find out; they didn't want to seem like they were getting a handout; they were embarrassed that they'd need the help; they're ashamed that they have suchandsucha problem; etc. These signals come from the crap those people in the comic above are being told: People with disabilities are seen as "moochers," as in the same category as "welfare queens" and "bums" sucking the teet of Lady Liberty dry.

So no SHIT they're afraid to seek counseling, or to go to the professor to get the accommodation they're entitled to by the gorram law, nonetheless.

And even if it's not a consciously articulated thought, "I better not see a therapist, otherwise people will judge me," they subconsciously know it's bound to happen. And that negative view of mental health problems comes from a terrible intermingling of capitalist and ableist rhetorics.

So then this means, again, that services are lacking as it were, and that getting them is so hard, a lot of people don't.

And I'm not saying the stigmas on mental and emotional health issues are the only thing causing shootings like the one at Purdue- I'm not that bad. What I am saying is that gun policies aren't the only ones we should seriously revamp if we want violent incidents like this to stop. Sure, I'd be in favor of better gun controls (although I don't think they should be banned, no). But that wouldn't stop people from going on killing sprees when whatever mental health issues they have take control- there are tons of other ways to kill people other than guns, after all.

Our inability to address the mental health of our own citizens is, of course, more directly related to ableism. 

But really, when anyone says we're lacking quality mental health services, it shouldn't seem like a stretch for me or anyone else to say it's related to ableism. I mean, c'mon. Did you really need me to tell you that?

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