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Carol Muske-Dukes

Carol Muske-Dukes

Posted: January 20, 2011 12:07 AM

On Jan. 19th, the New York Times ran a national feature entitled "Shooting in Arizona" -- a speculative piece on why Jared L. Loughner's mental deterioration wasn't "caught" prior to his shooting spree. The article was just one more in a series of soul-searchers in the press, part of a national hand-wringing about the difficulty in identifying and assisting disturbed students in funding psychiatric care.

I'm here to tell you that, based on my experience as a professor of English/Creative Writing who has taught in colleges and universities for many years -- it is not that difficult to pinpoint students who represent danger to themselves and others -- what is most difficult is getting administrators to listen to warnings about these individuals.

Just about every teacher/professor I know has had an "incident" with a disruptive and potentially violent student over the years. Not many of these teachers have been "heard" when reporting potential trouble. Notice the news reports on the Virginia Tech shooter, whose creative writing teacher, (the poet Nikk Giovanni) picked up on something frightening in the imaginative writings of the young man who ended up shooting classmates -- and the recent testimony of the math teacher at the community college where Jared Loughner was a student. Both complained about the erratic and threatening behavior of these students and asked for action on the part of administration in protecting faculty and students.

There was a brief headline or two about Arizona being one of the few states that allow school authorities and others to act on reports of potential violence. Loughner could have been detained and ultimately committed in Arizona, based on such complaints.

Nothing much was made of this -- and the press went back to scratching its collective head about the difficulty in diagnosing and getting a troubled individual to psychiatric treatment.

In fact, teachers (along with their students) are on the front lines when it comes to both diagnosing and sustaining the damages inflicted by those who are disruptive and delusional. Outside of Arizona, when a teacher indicates to administration that there is something very wrong with an individual in a classroom and asks for help with this person -- the reaction is pretty standard. Beyond suggestions that the student be encouraged to "seek help" on his own -- the "Wait until the threat is acted upon" policy is handed down with little in the way of further guidance or support.

Here's just one war story of my own. Many years ago, I was invited to teach at a famous and prestigious Writers' Workshop in the Midwest. I taught a writing workshop and also a seminar on modernist women writers. One of the writers who took my seminar was a young man about my own age, whose work had already been published and seemed like a model student. However, he came to my office one day acting in a delusional manner. He told me that he had stopped taking his "lithium" because he didn't need it anymore. He told me that he was the best writer/poet on campus, the best in the country -- and would prove it. He also told me that he was attracted to me and that we would be married. I spoke to him at length, suggesting he go back on his medication -- and finally he seemed to calm down. However, he did not resume his medication and soon began acting out in my seminar. He would shout out inappropriate comments while I was lecturing -- and he began smoking in class and throwing his cigarette butts on the floor -- one time he threw a lit cigarette at a fellow student. He became louder and more belligerent -- students were frightened and afraid to come to class.

I went to the head of the Writers' Workshop and asked for help. I was astonished to hear that nothing could be done "until he actually does something to hurt someone."

He did. This disturbed student pushed over chairs in my seminar one day and raged out of the classroom. He showed up at a student bar on campus, where he picked a fight with the bartender. The bartender "86'd" him and when he did so -- the young man broke a beer bottle on the bar and lunged at the bartender, attempting to cut his throat with the broken glass. He was taken to a psychiatric facility on campus and when he was asked about relatives he told the doctors that I was his wife.

This is just one story -- as I said, there are many. Almost as many as there are college classroom teachers.

I don't know if the "wait until blood flows" reaction is based on legal precedent -- or if administration are protecting themselves from lawsuits and higher insurance premiums.

What I do know is that experienced teachers are good at diagnosing truly disturbed and threatening behavior -- and asking that this behavior be taken seriously before tragedy occurs. We know when something is wrong -- it's not just Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic -- it's Reading, Writing and Reporting Responsibly when a desperate individual needs psychiatric help -- before it's too late.