About 20 minutes into delivering a lecture on advertising to the 260 Michigan State students in my intro to mass media class on Halloween, this orange-clad young man opened the doors at the back of the auditorium, entered and stood silent.
When I spotted him, I urged the class to welcome our Halloween visitor. But as he began digging in his backpack, I began feeling uneasy. Wasn’t it an orange-haired young man who opened fire at the people in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo.?
“Assure me there’s not an AK-47 in your backpack,” I said, making sure to laugh. He kept digging.
As I tried to figure out a non-threatening way to press the issue, the young man finally pulled out a notebook and made his way down to the aisle to an open seat. I heaved a sigh of relief.
The reality is that the world has changed. Five years ago, a disturbed young man at Virginia Tech opened fire killing 32 people. Less than a year ago, another disturbed young man killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook.
At universities nationwide, the good news is that psychotropic medications make it possible for students with mental issues to earn a degree. But the bad news is that we now have more troubled kids, at the same time all students are under enormous pressure to succeed. The specter of flunking out, buried in debt, palpably adds to the anxiety level.
Statistically, I have little to worry about. Classroom violence is a rarity, but the severity and frequency of such incidents is on the rise. According to the Washington Post, five of the 11 most deadly mass shootings have occurred since 2007.
As someone who teaches a mega-class, I recognize that auditorium settings like mine could make us an attractive target. I have been lobbying for a silent alarm on each podium but have not heard back. Though expensive, a system similar to the one used in banks would allow me to alert campus police for any emergency, whether it’s a student with a seizure or someone intent on causing harm.
I also want some coaching on how to best protect my students if danger erupts. Are the odds better in charging the shooter, or should I try to rush the students to the exits? Are there any other steps we could take to improve our chances of survival? Should we do periodic evacuation exercises as we do with the fire alarms?
Back in 1957, my algebra teacher John Sepsi drilled into us the need to think and plan ahead. While he was serving in Korea, he saw a truck filled with soldiers lurch ahead suddenly. Some of the men fell off the back, and one was seriously injured.
Sepsi said that seeing this persuaded him to spend a few minutes thinking through how he would react if it happened to him. He remembered previous advice about how to do a tuck and roll. Sure enough, a few weeks later, he fell off the back of a truck. Fortunately, his instincts kicked in, and he emerged unscathed. He credits his mental preparation with keeping him safe.
My problem in developing a sensible plan for my classroom is that I lack the knowledge about best practices. All too often we wait for tragedy before investing in the mental preparation that could keep us safe.
It saddens me first that our society has reached a point where a young man in an orange mask on Halloween gives me pause. But I would be quicker to laugh freely if I knew that I had a good plan in place to deal with possible threats.