A professor is shot dead at UCLA, and college instructors reflect on their own moments of quiet terror in the classroom

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Photo courtesy of StockSnap.

When news broke June 1 about "yet another" campus shooting - that resulted in the targeted murder of an engineering professor at UCLA - a social media group devoted to women in academia lit up with concern.

Dozens of college instructors who are a part of this group shared their stories about encounters with angry, violent, intimidating and disturbed students in their classrooms. These stories did not end in mayhem or headlines, but many still involved shaken professors, frightened students, and campus police. Stories like these unfold whenever school is in session throughout the year, and across the country. These are the experiences that are not reported in the news because they thankfully ended without "incident." But for these college instructors the memory lingers and it colors what it means to teach on a college campus today.

I am a member of this social media group, and when a poster suggested sharing this thread publicly I offered to paste some of the comments on my blog here. For obvious reasons I've removed all names from the comments, and I only posted comments if I had permission. Unless you see a series of dashes, which indicates private information, the comments appear as is.

Campus shootings may occur at irregular intervals but the stories posted here reveal a regular pattern where college instructors encounter unsettling behavior that raises red flags in the classroom. A Washington Post headline yesterday encapsulated this dynamic: "terrifying meets mundane."

Even when faculty, staff and students are spared bodily harm - or death - there are scary moments of "what if" and "almost." Here is a small selection of them.

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I had an odd experience that was not directly threatening but was scary. I taught [-------] during grad school. A whole year after I had a student in my class, I received a call from his [family member] who I did not know. The [family member] tracked me down at a totally different institution to tell me the student was having obsessions about me and that I was going to die soon. I was so freaked out. No direct threat just creepiness. I think he was potentially psychotic or delusional. I called campus police and they said they could not help me bc the student was no longer enrolled. This was at [-------]. To this day, 8 yrs later, I have him blocked on my FB. I hope he never finds me again!

I teach several hundred students every semester so try to keep in mind the odds are very low but I've had 3 students (all male) in the last 7 years that rose to the level of threatening and intimidating. One was finally arrested and expelled from the university but that was after two months of coordinating with administrators, our university Behavioral Assessment Team, and the police. Ultimately my university did nothing to protect me and another female faculty because they "have to" protect the student's right to an education. What finally got him out of my/our classroom was the police--for stalking a female student. It was very frustrating and disheartening but fortunately had a safe outcome.

I had a student who had a manic episode in class. I didn't even know about the mental health issues until after he followed me back to my office while explaining how he could help me with my research because he knew the meaning of the universe. It took a sudden and very scary turn when I told him that I wasn't following his logic and he handed me a written "essay" enumerating which students in the college deserved to be shot. It was a late class, and we were in my office after hours with literally no one else around. I finally managed to get him to leave, but was shaking all over. It was the single most frightening experience of my life. I ended up reporting it and security was stationed outside of class for a few weeks, but they eventually stopped showing up. There weren't any further incidents, but It's definitely colored how i deal with students. It's sad to say but I also scope out all exit routes at the beginning of the semester now. 😐

I have feared for my safety with a student. I had a student who didn't do well in my class and kept wanting to meet to talk about it. On every teacher evaluation I have ever received, the word "approachable" is used, but for this particular student, I actually made a safety plan with my associate dean and colleagues. I agreed to meet with him during a time when lots of people would be there, my door stayed open, I positioned myself near the door, and my colleagues kept milling about outside my office.

I had a very scary and similar situation this past Fall. A male student sent me aggressive and insulting emails, he was also harassing multiple students and faculty on campus. Our entire department was very nervous and scared. I was personally very threatened and had to take some time off just so I could come to work feeling safe. He has graduated, but I still am very nervous about running in to him or having him return to campus. He has specifically stated that I am at fault for all of his failures.

Two lockdowns, but first one student who came looking for me on campus from a city 5 hours away after a bad grade on an online class. In the same six month period, my daughter had a lockdown at her elementary school for a bomb threat. And the FL state legislature wants to pass conceal and carry. I know I seem to repeat this a lot here, but yeah, I quit and we got the f!@# out of Dodge. A tea party state is no place to be a mother and an academic. I spent too much time in real conflicts to write this off. It's not worth it to me anymore.

Once, I knew I was going to have a difficult conversation with a student so I asked a security guard to discretely follow the student as they came to my office. The guard stood in the hallway, hidden from view, and listened for any sign of trouble while we spoke. I also told all of my colleagues on my floor what was happening. They (all men) made sure to be in their offices with their doors opening, listening. You could have heard a pin drop. Absolutely nothing happened, but I hate that I was nervous enough to arrange all of this in advance. And everyone thought that what I was doing was completely sensible and in no way an overreaction...

I always leave my door open when I meet with students, have a desk between me and them. With ones that worry me, I've found a more public location or asked colleagues to stop by. We have a policy to allow us to flag a student with emotional, etc. difficulties and I watch for students to flag and hope that I'm never in this situation. It's one of the reasons I have life insurance.

Three years ago, I had a student in a class who was about to fail and saw ME as the sole barrier between him and graduation. It was a film class, and he'd been extremely vocal about all the ultra-violent films he loved watching. He had some disability on record that gave him permission to get up and leave class when "too anxious" (this happened often), and he constantly told me inappropriate things to justify his poor performance (girlfriend just gave him STD, etc.). He grew so hostile to me, and this was right after another shooting at a nearby univ, that the admin looked over his (public) facebook page after I'd expressed my concern. Not sure what they saw, but next thing I know, campus AND city police were there outside my final exam keeping eyes on him. Scared the shit out of me. He ended up legitimately passing by something like .01 of a point. Thank goodness. Otherwise, I'd honestly have been scared to know I'm on Google maps, etc. I definitely felt more scared as a woman because this guy clearly had low regard for any women and was very hostile. ... I also once had a guy come to class wearing a rubber Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta. He wouldn't take it off, either. So I just conducted class as if he weren't there, but I was freaking out (as were other students). Eventually, he got hot and removed it, then sat there with a big grin on his face. Think he was purely going for creating discomfort. I sacked him on the (big) class participation grade because he violated class community by being disruptive.

I've had multiple situations that were worrisome. A student told me they understood the coded messages about them I was sending the class during the lecture. Another threatened me vaguely ("We'll just have to *see* what happens if I don't pass the next exam!") during office hours. It seems there is a bad convergence between the age of onset of schizophrenia (around when people leave for college), the fact that it is incredibly common (1/100), and a strange form of entitlement ("it's your fault I failed").

Yes, I have felt threatened, interestingly by a female phd candidate. We yield a lot of control over people's lives and careers in our jobs. It can lead to a lot of passionate, scary anger over outcomes. The prevalence of guns in the US makes this fear provoking in a way that is disturbing and definitely above our pay grade

When I was a TA 3 years ago I had a student in my class (a class on terrorism nonetheless) who began harassing me via email, the emails starting escalating to a threatening level as well as many sexist comments. He continued to come to class for a couple of days while I worked with administration to get him removed. On the last day of class he attended, he brought a duffle bag and sat quietly in the edge of the room, he started shuffling through it and I started panicking and actually froze in place, he ended up pulling out a bunch of notebooks, but I thought it would be a gun. He had long bragged about having a concealed carry license. He also harassed another female TA in our department. He was eventually suspended and had to take anger management classes. He supposedly threatened to sue or did sue the university and is back on campus now. I don't know all the details, just that he is back.

When I was a graduate instructor, I taught a class in the basement of our building. The podium was in the far corner away from the door. There was a phone on the podium and an emergency phone right outside the door, but my cell didn't work. I had a very odd student one semester who tended to hang around after class and awkwardly talk to me and two female students. One was an older, mom type, and the other was pregnant. They both came to me one day to register concern that he seemed troubled. After the final exam, he was the very last one and was 15 minutes longer than anyone else. I was nervous enough that I was compelled to step out in the hall and send my husband a text (or call...I can't remember) to let him know where I was and what was going on. About a week after the semester was over, I got an email from a psychologist saying that the student was in treatment and asking if I had anything to share that might be helpful. It was a very eerie experience. ... And last year, I taught a gender studies course and showed Tough Guise after which we had a discussion about masculinity and guns. A student in that class, who was notoriously pro gun, made the "good guys with guns argument" and said "Wouldn't it make you all feel better if I had a gun?!!" And to their everlasting credit, every last student in that room said "NO!" in unison. I half expected him to pull one out anyway.

I dealt with a student who made me, a couple of other female professors, and several students very uncomfortable - but we couldn't point to any observable behaviors to have the program reconsider his standing. Even worse, he was a clinical masters student. We voiced our concerns, but I've often thought I wouldn't be surprised if I heard he'd snapped someday.

On the first day of fall classes this year, the shooting at Umpqua Community college happened, not too far from where I teach (on an urban campus where students and the public and all sorts of folks mingle freely and have access to most campus buildings, and where I've had countless students with mental health struggles--fortunately none violent, so far). It occurred to me to check how many of my classrooms had doors that lock, which seems essential in an active shooter or "lockdown" situation, and was distressed to find that none did. Further, the classroom I was in immediately before hearing news of the shooting had glass along the interior wall, presumably not bullet proof.