The Challenges of Tracking Potentially Dangerous People

With the Tucson, Ariz., shootings, the nation was once again witness to a mass homicide that had connections to an Institution of Higher Education (IHE).
Published: January 19, 2011

With the Tucson, Ariz., shootings, the nation was once again witness to a mass homicide that had connections to an Institution of Higher Education (IHE). There is no magic bullet for tracking either potentially dangerous students or individuals in our communities.

IHEs reflect social trends comparable to small cities. Many adult students are leaving home for the first time in their lives, and some may lack coping/adapting skills. Some may have recurrent or mental health disorders. Some may react poorly to the stress of testing and the rigors of maintaining high grade point averages. Depression can also be a factor. Some students handle the college experience well, some don’t. 

As an emergency manager for a major urban university, I don’t get involved in student crisis intervention issues. Others within our campus community deal with this issue, so I won’t be discussing my campus policy. There are however, many emergency managers that are part of their campus crisis management review and intervention teams. They don’t discuss their campus policies either.

Society Doesn’t Want to Address Mental Illness

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Many communities outside of colleges and universities struggle with mental illness and the homeless; it’s part of the underbelly of our society that few people want to address. It’s not illegal to be mentally ill or to have mental health issues or disorders, nor can we just warehouse people with mental health issues as a convenience to society. It is repugnant to our sense of civil liberties and other freedoms.  

Many people are seeking to better themselves through higher education. IHE communities are extremely diverse, and they welcome everyone who can pay their way – period. When you attend or work within a university, we are supposed to leave our biases and baggage at the door; it’s a free, open and liberal society.

Public safety officials tend to only address the mentally ill either because someone has reportedly become a danger to themselves or others, and in some instances, that may be too late. States like California revised their laws back in the 1970s that eliminated the state caretaker role for the mentally ill. Ever since then, the mentally ill and communities they reside in have faced many ongoing challenges. It gets worse in a bad economy.

When people break and unleash violence on society, it becomes a matter that IHE emergency managers, public safety and mental health professionals are forced to deal with… usually, after the fact. This also includes the post-incident litigation that will almost always be unleashed as a result.

Red Flags Aren’t Easy to Identify or Address

The shootings in Tucson have created second guessing of the red flags that may have been present in the Tucson shooter (Jared Loughner) at an IHE before the tragedy occurred.

Media pundits are busy discussing and speculating what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. The problem is that there may be no mitigation. As I learned working as a paramedic for a decade – bad things happen, and there isn’t always a good reason for it. When broken people like Loughner decide to inflict violence, they will usually find a means to the end, whether it’s through the use of a firearm, a knife, a motor vehicle, a baseball bat, by their own hands, or anything they can turn into a deadly weapon and is readily accessible. 

Loughner’s parents appear to have been well aware of their son’s behavioral problems; yet appear to have not intervened. Could they have intervened? Loughner was an adult (22 years old). Reports issued recently outline a pattern of behavior and interaction with his parents that are being investigated. We have all seen parents circle the wagons related to dysfunctional family matters, and it may be that the Loughner family was a time bomb nobody knew was lit, until it was too late. That happens every day in America. How do we stop that?

In the case of Loughner, USA Today and Campus Safety reported, “Pima Community College personnel notified campus law enforcement officials of threatening behavior. It appears they acted appropriately. Pima Community College, where Loughner had been a student until last fall, created teams to help assess whether students are potentially dangerous. The college suspended Loughner last year for classroom and library disruptions, according to a statement from the school. Officials briefed his parents, and told Loughner to come back only after a mental health professional had assessed that he was not a danger to himself or others. After that, “there was no further college contact with Loughner,” the college says.”

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