Recognizing the Danger Signs

The beginning of the semester arrived on Monday for the community college where I am a full time assistant professor. I teach composition and creative writing and recently have taken on American Lit. I only have two face to face courses this semester, the other two being online (that’s a whole other post altogether) however it’s always nice to walk into a room of fresh faces at the beginning of the term.

This morning, while I was drinking my one designated cup of coffee for the day, I came across this article in The New York Times: College’s Policy on Troubled Students Is Under Scrutiny. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’re aware of Jared Loughner opening fire in Arizona. Among his victims Representative Gabrielle Giffords. However, what I’ve found particularly compelling about this story is the narrative surrounding his attendance at Pima Community College.

I know I think this an important part of the overall picture because a). I’m a professor at a community college. 2). I had my own experience with a troubled student last spring. My student was young, erratic, and physical. He was bi-polar and ex-military. His behavior became increasingly unpredictable as the semester progressed to the point where he made his fellow peers uncomfortable. What finally drove it home for me, was when he showed up one day in my office looking for me while I was off campus for a meeting. He proceeded to talk to my officemate for several minutes, becoming more and more animated and making no sense whatsovever. When I returned from my meeting, he was long gone but my officemate and several other faculty told me I needed to file complaint. His behavior made them fear for my well being. This is the part of the story that I relate to the article from the Times. When I filed my complaint, I learned that this student had had a previous altercation in Financial Aid and that other students had complained about him. However, no one ever followed up on my complaint with me or my chair or the dean. Furthermore, my student vanished until the last week of classes when I received a letter letting me know he had been hospitalized and would not be back.

In the wake of the events in Arizona and even the incident at Virginia Tech, it is obvious that our community colleges need more support when it comes to students suffering from mental illness. I’m not saying that more resources or available care would have changed the outcomes for Loughner or Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) but I think the fact that authorities know something was wrong but didn’t know what to do about it is indicative of a larger problem. The only course of action seems to be to remove them immediately from the school, but in Loughner’s case there is speculation that this action may have served to aggravate him further.

What’s the answer? I think more education and more attention paid to students themselves. It was obvious to me that my student’s situation was not a priority and that just isn’t acceptable. We need a counseling center, with trained medical professionals. We need seminars for students and faculty. We need to stop waiting until something happens to take action.

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