Given that it’s the start of a new school year, and in the wake of so many shootings over the summer, it’s time to reformulate how we deal with violence and mass shootings. The saddening eruption of yet another mass shooting by former graduate student James Holmes at the The Dark Knight Rises opening in Aurora, Colorado in July is a case that makes clear my point. It’s time for colleges and universities to do psychological profiles as a requirement for admissions and attendance, and for public schools to be more proactive in providing psychological services.
There’s been much discussion of gun laws, assault weapons bans, and polls that show that a majority of Americans are anti-gun control. But there hasn’t been nearly enough dialogue about how to detect potential domestic threats to our safety to begin with. The majority of domestic threats in the past generation have come from young and mostly White males, either in high school or in higher education. We as a nation are either sympathetic — as in “how could they have turned out so wrong?” — or vengeful toward these perpetrators. We give so much thought to the Second Amendment that we completely neglect the root cause, the one thing the sympathetic and the vengeful do agree on. That someone like James Holmes would have to be psychologically unstable or “crazy” to do what he did.
The list of school and college-related mass murders and shootings goes something like this since 1996. San Diego State University, Pearl, Mississippi, West Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Littleton, Colorado, University of Arkansas, University of Arizona School of Nursing, Virginia Tech (twice, in 2007 and 2011), Chardon, Ohio and Oikos University. Though Holmes technically didn’t unload his 100 or so bullets on a college, high school or middle school campus, he lived in the Aurora, Colorado community in part because he was a one-time University of Colorado graduate student.
It’s beyond time for schools and especially colleges and universities to remember that they are very much a part of communities, not just gigantic entities unto themselves. Part of the responsibility of being a significant member of a community is to play a significant role in ensuring the safety of the community. Not just on the actual middle school, high school or a higher education institution campus, but in the surrounding community as well.
Part of taking all necessary actions to ensure the safety of students, teachers, professors, administrators and community members is providing services that could identify behavioral or psychological issues among students. We’ve learned in the cases of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — the Columbine High School shooters — and in the case of Seung-Hui Cho — the Virginia Tech shooter — that consistent psychological services may have prevented these murders and injuries. Had psychological screening been performed and other related steps — including barring these individuals from contact with the campus and reporting potential threats to law enforcement — these students might well have become productive citizens.
Of course, there’s no way to know for sure if readily available psychological services at the K-12 level and required screenings at the college level would lead to a reduction in student-related mass shootings. But it would allow for the opportunity for students at an early age to discuss their delusions of grandeur, their feelings of isolation or ostracism, their rage and their need to strike out against fellow students and community members alike. It would give colleges and universities the opportunity to truly get to know potential students beyond their grades and community service opportunities, and to understand how first-year students respond to stresses and pressures of college long before they become a threat.
Most importantly, mental health screening would allow a college or university to identify psychological issues with a students before accepting them into their institutions. While this proscription may make university administrators and school district superintendents squeamish, it is certainly a conversation worth having. After all, it’s not as if the debate about gun control has gotten any of us anywhere in the past 50 years.