Workplace violence in higher education settings

A fact of life in colleges and universities is that a small number of students may suffer from personality disorders or psychiatric conditions that render them at risk to act out violently toward others.  Fortunately, this is not an everyday, ongoing threat.  But when situations occur, the risks are significant for everyone involved.

Michael Schmidt and Michael Regan, reporting for the New York Times, wrote about last week’s killing of a SUNY Binghamton professor, allegedly at the hands of a graduate student.  The article mentions a claim from one student that he attempted to warn university officials about the alleged assailant’s tendencies:

In this small upstate college town, there were many who tried to comprehend how a popular 77-year-old professor who championed antiwar philosophies would have come to such a violent end: stabbed to death in his office on Friday, by, the police said, a graduate student whom he knew.

Then there were those who said they had noticed signs of erratic behavior by the suspect, a graduate student at Binghamton University, who, they said, was becoming increasingly fearful — so much so that his roommate said he had warned university officials of his concerns.

The suspect, Abdulsalam S. al-Zahrani, 46, remained held without bail on Sunday, charged with second-degree murder in the death of the professor, Richard T. Antoun.

The 2007 killing of 32 people at Virginia Tech  by senior student Seung-Hui Cho remains the worst of these events.  Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor writes about a recent report that clarifies the timeline of the university’s handling of the unfolding tragedy:

Basically a clarification to the original report, the correction changed the timeline of the university’s response, pointing out that university officials failed to alert the campus of a “shooter on the loose” for two hours even as they locked down university offices and at least two staffers informed their own families of the first shooting, at Ambler Johnston Hall. The new report also notes that the university cancelled trash collection 20 minutes before alerting the campus.

Because we tend to think of colleges and universities as havens from the trials of everyday life, it is easy to underestimate risks of physical violence.  But let us remember that we are dealing with a huge cohort of students, many of whom face considerable stress and anxiety — notwithstanding any rose-colored memories (accurate or not) we might have of our own student days.  And like any other population, some will be dealing with problems that, under certain circumstances, could manifest themselves in physical violence.

Based on my own experiences and observations as an educator in university settings for some 18 years, I believe that we continue to downplay these risks.  However, the current economy and job market mean that students are as stressed out as ever, and some may not be coping with these realities effectively.  Furthermore, some students who are dismissed for academic or disciplinary reasons may be at risk for committing destructive behaviors.  We all need to be better trained to watch for warning signs of students who are at risk of doing harm to themselves and/or to others, and to have protocols in place for when dangerous situations occur.

For “Binghamton Student Says He Warned Officials” (NYT):

For “Three lessons shaping society after Virginia Tech massacre” (CSM):

The blog Workplace Violence News contains a wealth of ongoing, relevant commentary:

For a previous entry about the killing of Yale graduate student Annie Le:

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