“Do You Have a Plan to Harm Yourself or Anyone Else?”

A professor confronts a disturbing student.

Illustration by Mark Stamaty

Julie Schumacher, a novelist and creative writing professor at the University of Minnesota, says she had sweated through her clothes by the time she managed to finish interrogating an undergraduate whose off-topic and violent poems had alarmed everyone in class. She had, as she writes in a recent and wrenching New York Times op-ed, contacted campus police and mental health services repeatedly. But still, the interrogation took place, at their behest, in her office—with only a soft-spoken graduate TA (in whose class the student was enrolled) as backup. Schumacher was instructed, she says, to “calmly begin a conversation with the following question: ‘Do you have a plan to harm yourself or anyone else?’ ” And if he said yes? “They didn’t specify a course of action.”

This incident took place, according to a Minnesota representative I emailed, in 2008—right around the time the university hired Amelious Whyte to be senior associate vice provost for advocacy and support. Whyte told me in an email that “student mental health is a top priority” at the university, and the chief duty of the Behavioral Consultation Team he supervises is to work with “students who demonstrate mental health challenges.” Part of that work, he explains, is in fact engaging faculty to interact with “students of concern.” This, he says, is because according to research, these students are “more likely to open up to someone they already know at the University, so often the best approach is to help a faculty or staff member engage with the student.” Thus it’s likely that in suggesting—not, Whyte emphasizes, forcing—Schumacher to reach out to this student, the university was following protocol.

Still, protocol or no, it’s clear that Schumacher and her graduate instructor felt unsafe and unsupported. So they came up with the best plan they could. “At any sign of a problem,” she explains, the TA “was to sprint out of the office, assuming that I would be immediately behind her. In order to follow us, the student would have to squeeze somewhat awkwardly between my desk and the propped-open door.” The situation didn’t escalate past that sweaty conversation, but the student’s response to the “harm” question did little to placate anyone: “If I were going to pull a Virginia Tech or a Columbine,” he told Schumacher, “I wouldn’t tell you about it, would I?”

When the Virginia Tech massacre happened (32 dead; 17 others wounded), it was the first Columbine-style rampage at the postsecondary level. (It still holds the “distinction” of the most carnage by a single gunman in U.S. history.) As such, it sent shockwaves through colleges everywhere, including the University of California at Irvine, where I was a Ph.D. student at the time. It hit particularly close to home with my own students, as Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho had shot up a German class just like mine. Since then, there have been at least nine reported preplanned college multiple shootings—one by an unhinged professor denied tenure; the rest by students, former students, or their peers. When the most recent one—at Seattle Pacific University (one dead; three others wounded)—hit the news, all I could do was shrug disconsolately and hope that if it ever happened to my class, it would be over fast and none of us would be in too much pain.

Obviously, I don’t have a solution to the mass shooting epidemic, at colleges or otherwise. But as admirable as faculty outreach is, I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of professors—mostly underpaid, and entirely unqualified—crisis-managing potentially dangerous situations. What if Schumacher’s student had said “yes,” and pulled out a gun? Then what? “Police become involved immediately in any situation that is imminently threatening” at Minnesota, assures Whyte—but what if “immediately” is too late?

All right, I suppose professors are not entirely “untrained.” At faculty orientation in 2010, in addition to learning how to set up a course website, I also learned what to do in an active-shooter situation. (In case you’re curious: We were instructed to move higgledy-piggledy around the classroom and throw things at him, creating moving targets and rattling his concentration.) And I’m grateful for that training. Everyone in charge of a classroom should have at least a modicum of “live shooter” preparation—and some schools have taken it one step further, introducing portable dry-erase boards that double as bulletproof shields.

Of course not every troubled young person is dangerous. As long as there have been universities, professors have been weathering low-level meltdowns with relative success, despite not being qualified to deal with them per se. I cannot count the times I’ve had a student burst into uncontrollable tears in my office, rendering him- or herself both unable to talk and unable to leave the room. Sometimes students just have to cry it out.

Then there was the blank-eyed, distraught young man who wandered into my office and threatened to throw himself off the roof of the building, but then changed his mind. He wasn’t even my student, but I escorted him over to the counseling center myself (and, for my trouble, endured a far-too-intense hug). Most intensely emotional and dramatic individuals—myself included—are harmless.

But some people aren’t harmless. When a student has done “things that made the other students afraid,” as Schumacher writes, maybe it’s better to err on the side of too much intervention. “To me, this isn’t about one particular college or university; it’s a difficult nationwide issue,” she tells me over email. “We need to find a way to respect privacy and freedom of speech,” she says, “while still protecting students, faculty and staff from frightening and potentially violent behavior on campus.  You can’t get on an airplane after ‘joking’ about a bomb; I don’t think a student who continues to hand in intimidating, violent material—unrelated to the assignment—should be permitted to remain in the classroom.” Schumacher’s student didn’t shoot anyone—and, although she writes in the Times that he dropped out, a rep from Minnesota tells me he even graduated.* But she still “sat sentry” outside that terrified grad student’s classroom.

Most professors care deeply about students’ mental health and well-being. And if research shows students open up to people they already know, I’m game to help—but I want them to open up, not open fire. And if the latter is even a remote possibility—if, for example, said “student of concern” has been turning in poems, unsolicited, about murdering everyone in class—I want the assistance of a trained professional and I want it now. Currently the best resource professors have is an emphatic referral to the student counseling office—but sometimes the students, as in Schumacher’s case, just refuse to go. Whyte explains that at Minnesota, in rare cases “the University can mandate that a student meet with the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity to address any threatening behavior.” From my vantage point, Schumacher’s student—simply because of the way he made his instructors and classmates feel—should have been one of these cases. And perhaps it should be standard practice that any student who, as Whyte’s office puts it, communicates “distress through writing,” be barred from returning to class until that distress is addressed—by someone actually qualified to do so.

Correction, June 25, 2014: This article originally stated that, per Julie Schumacher’s New York Times essay, the troubled student dropped out. A representative from the University of Minnesota says the student did graduate. (Return.)