Active shooter guidelines perpetuate stigma

CSO worker Thomas Levonius monitors activity in the campus safety office. Photo by Anthony Garnier.

While the University of Dallas’ decision to implement an active shooter plan this year is both prudent and laudable, its description of warning signs for potential campus violence requires revision.

The posters detailing the response plan in the event of a school shooting, now distributed in plain sight throughout campus, include a list of indicators that  students or employees may be exhibiting potentially violent behavior.

These signs include increased alcohol and drug use, unexplained absenteeism or “vague physical complaints,” depression, increased mood swings and emotional responses, talk of problems at home, and increased unsolicited comments about firearms and other weapons.

The guidelines strongly encourage students to report classmates or employees exhibiting such behavior to the Office of Student Affairs or to Human Resources, respectively.

Any of these signs, of course, is troubling and worthy of attention — and even more than that attention, compassion — but they do not in themselves indicate that individuals will engage in violent behavior toward others.

They indicate, rather, that they may have mental or emotional health problems.

Of course, given what a sin it is to have a mental illness in modern American society, I cannot say I am surprised that mental health struggles are linked with potential for violence.

According to a 2006 national survey published by Harvard Medical School, 60 percent of Americans believe sufferers of schizophrenia are likely to harm others. 32 percent believe the same of sufferers of major depression.

All the same, according to the University of Washington School of Social Work, the vast majority of those with mental illness are not violent.

If they do exhibit violent behavior, moreover, what is missed in all these misconceptions is the reality that the mentally ill are far more likely to hurt themselves than to hurt others.

Having depression or another mood disorder increases one’s lifetime risk of suicide 20-fold, according to professional mental health manuals.

Furthermore, numerous psychosocial studies suggest that up to 70 percent of individuals with borderline personality disorder — a personality disorder that results in intense, rapidly cycling emotions — and 30 percent of those with autism spectrum disorders engage in self-injurious behaviors.

And yet we would ostracize these individuals even more by suggesting they exhibit potential to be campus shooters and by frightening other students into reporting their hurting fellow classmates to Human Resources or to the Office of Student Affairs.

Of course, the problem with these guidelines does not solely rest on their faulty presentation of sufferers of mental illnesses.

What exactly “vague physical complaints” means, first of all, is unclear — and when it comes to trying to decide whether to risk harming the emotional well-being of a student by labeling him as a threat, I’m sure most of us would prefer a greater degree of clarity as to what exactly we’re supposed to be looking for.

In addition, identifying “increased talk of problems at home” as a sign of potentially violent behavior silences many students who are hurting and simply need their fellow members of the UD community to listen with charity and compassion to their struggles.

I would also argue that while increased substance abuse is indeed a problem, the guidelines encourage a fallacious understanding of the effects of increased alcohol or drug use.

Substance abuse could have any number of causes and could result in any number of consequences.

To reduce the problem of substance abuse to an indicator of potentially violent behavior, a flaccid catch-all term with any number of interpretations, is to perpetuate a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem itself.

Finally — and I admit this might just be a personal issue — the fact that many of the guidelines were copied word-for-word from a manual written by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security without any citations thereof is a little lazy.

Branding UD students and employees with scarlet letters on account of their personal struggles is not only irresponsible and hurtful, but it also offers no solution to the problem of campus violence.

Taking the time to create, implement and promulgate an active shooter plan is a responsible endeavor for which I would like to congratulate the university, but we can improve our plan even further by encouraging kindness and individual dialogue, rather than putting up a list of potentially violent behaviors all over campus.

The Mental Health Awareness Project (Sept. 12-30) has already shown promise in this respect in its willingness to bring mental health professionals to speak to students and to encourage sufferers to share their stories.

Perhaps the creators of the active shooter guidelines could follow their example and revise their warning signs list so as not to be incriminating or alarmist, but rather aware and compassionate — or, even better, they could eliminate the list altogether and focus on what to do in case of a shooting or other incidents of campus violence.

All of us, mentally ill and otherwise, would be far safer for it.



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