‘Are we doing enough?’
Butte College officials question safety programs in wake of Tucson, Ariz., shooting and campus incidents
Early last semester, in writing instructor Linda Rogers’ classroom at Butte College, a tall, husky young man—a former football player—got up from his seat in the middle of the room and started walking toward the front with a pen in hand. Unsure of his intent, Rogers continued talking to her students.
Upon reaching the front of the room, he without warning pushed up against Rogers, pinning her to the whiteboard while raising the pen in a threatening manner.
“At one point, the pen was only one centimeter from my eyeball,” Rogers said.
She grabbed the young man’s raised arm with one hand while blocking him with the other. The students in the classroom sat frozen, no one darting for the door to call for help, no one flipping out a cell phone to punch 911.
Rogers said the student’s name several times and asked him questions, but “When I looked in his eyes, there was nobody home.”
Finally, the cap slipped off the student’s pen, and he blinked. He lowered his arm and calmly turned around, walked back to his seat and sat down.
Although extremely shaken, Rogers continued the lesson to the end of class. As everyone departed, she told the student he needed to go with her to visit the dean.
“What do you mean?” he asked. He had no recollection of what had occurred.
In the wake of the Tucson, Ariz., shooting in which six people were killed and 13 wounded, the safety of community colleges is up for discussion—this time because the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, was himself a community college student until recently.
A couple days after the incident, Loughner’s former biology teacher, an adjunct instructor at Pima Community College in Tucson, recounted on television her experiences with him early last semester. Loughner’s inappropriate responses in the classroom one day led her to call campus police, who removed the young man.
It turned out that was not his first encounter with campus police—he’d had several others. He was told he could not return to the college without a mental-health evaluation, so he voluntarily withdrew from the college in October.
Other televised interviews with former classmates of Loughner’s have revealed that fellow students feared him. One young woman wrote in her diary she worried he would come into her class and kill people. Another student said he intentionally befriended Loughner so he might avoid getting shot if Loughner came to class with a gun.
In the wake of the Tucson incident, instructors at community colleges everywhere, including Butte College, find themselves re-examining their campuses and the new challenges posed by a changing student body.
Violent incidents are not unknown in California community colleges. In 2007, a student shot a police aide at Contra Costa Community College and fled the scene. About four months ago, a student shot a faculty member at Mesa College in San Diego.
In a Campus Safety magazine article online, survey results reveal that “Nearly half of university/college police or security departments don’t have enough staff or weapons to appropriately respond to incidents.” Four in five survey participants, however, said their institutions’ top administrators do take public safety seriously.
One issue emerging as administrators grapple with a new era of problems on community college campuses is that student rights must be considered as colleges attempt to assess threats. A recent USA Today article said, “A growing majority of colleges nationwide are keeping tabs on students through ‘threat assessment teams’ charged with identifying dangerous students, causing debate to erupt over how much power the schools should have as they try to flag disturbing behavior.”
This was not the first time Butte College’s Rogers encountered violence on campus. In a phone interview, she reported that several years ago, when she taught Spanish at Las Plumas High School in Oroville, she was one classroom away from a hostage situation involving a gun in the school’s band room—the infamous incident involving then-17-year-old Gregory Wright. And as a child in upstate New York she was shot in the leg with a BB gun by “some boys who wanted to shoot girls” as she rode her bike.
As it turned out after a thorough investigation conducted by Butte College, the student in Rogers’ classroom had an unreported disability that caused him occasionally to experience a “medical trance” during which he was completely unaware of his surroundings or actions. After much scrutiny from medical and psychological personnel and others, the college and Rogers allowed him to return to her class.
“I felt super confident in Butte College’s analysis of the situation,” she said, emphasizing that administrators at Butte had gone out of their way to address the situation and be supportive of her.
Rogers is just one of numerous Butte College instructors who have had disturbing encounters in their classrooms in recent years.
“One of the things that’s been happening over the last few years is an explosion of campus-related incidents,” including flagrantly disruptive behavior and disrespect of authority, Al Renville, vice president of student services, said in a phone interview.
There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, he explained, including the poor economy, which has pushed people onto campus who can’t get jobs and who are sometimes dealing with financial and other pressures at home.
Renville also cited the “lack of the ability of high schools and junior highs to do anything about what is going on in their schools” in terms of behavioral problems and “lack of parental involvement” in K-12 schools as contributing factors.
He said the increasing incidents are “more and more egregious” and students rarely want to take responsibility for their actions.
Renville has been facilitating student discipline for almost 30 years. He said that, while he used to handle anywhere from 10 to 30 incidents a semester, he handled about 150 last semester. In addition to disruptive behaviors in the classroom, the incidents involved plagiarism, forgery, stealing, stalking, graffiti and assaults. “Short-fused students are much more prevalent now.”
Other incidents revolved around mental-health issues, he said, noting there are many more students now who are “not mentally grounded” and who are on and off medications. At present there are at least six Butte students who, like Jared Loughner, have been told they must get mental-health evaluations before they can return to campus.
Almost three years ago, Butte hired a mental-health specialist, Maureen Hernandez, a psychologist. Her hours have been expanded, and she has an intern now. “Everybody is working toward safety,” Hernandez said during a phone interview, “and with the recent shootings in Tucson, people are scurrying around saying, ‘Are we doing enough?’ ”
Working in concert with other Butte personnel, Hernandez has been participating in faculty and staff trainings aimed at helping Butte employees recognize when a student might be dangerous. She said she also teaches instructors to have clear boundaries about what type of behavior is expected in their classrooms.
She explained that sometimes faculty walk students right to her office, which is located inside the Student Health Clinic, and “We take them in right away.” If the student has known mental-health issues, she tries to get permission to work with his or her doctor or therapist.
Although Hernandez said Butte is limited in what it can do for students with mental-health issues, “In all honesty, we’re probably a lot more prepared than other community colleges—partly because we work closely with the campus police, and partly because I work right in the Student Health Clinic office,” which allows her to work closely with physicians. “We’ve integrated medical and psychological care,” she said.
When asked if Butte College is a safe place for faculty and students, Hernandez said, “Absolutely. It’s safe today, and it will be safer tomorrow because safety is a priority.”
Butte College has what Renville describes as an “open access/open entry” policy, which results in “a mixture of the typical student and a lot of students for whom there is no other place to go.
“We have students here who have not made it anywhere else—we have a lot of marginal students, some who really don’t belong here, but are here.”
Some of those students are probationers and parolees who are “parked” at Butte College by probation and parole officers.
Renville pointed out one of the biggest issues at Butte College is that “faculty members have a tendency to want to save everybody—to try to do everything possible to save every student.” But sometimes this results in other students’ learning being disrupted in the classroom and isn’t in the teacher’s or other students’ best interests.
“If a student threatens a teacher or another student,” Renville explained, “then that student is summarily suspended.”
Sgt. Doug Sloan, head of the campus police, said Butte College is ahead of other community colleges in dealing with the rise in campus-related incidents primarily because of the extensive student services Butte has in place and because of its commitment to early intervention.
Talking by telephone, he said he had learned following the Tucson shooting that Pima Community College does not have the same system in place that Butte College has. If it had, “That might have made a difference with this kid [Jared Loughner].”
With Butte College’s main campus a 30-minute drive from any town, the college is fortunate, Sloan said, to have its own police force. Most of the colleges in Southern California have to rely upon city police departments, and their officers do not have the same vested interest in students and faculty that Butte College officers have. “I’ve been here 15 years, and we have the best, most dedicated officers,” he said.
His officers often refer students to on-campus resources. “A lot of these people [with problems] don’t know what’s available until it’s offered to them,” he said. Butte College is “pretty lucky,” in that there have been no “major incidents” involving violence on campus. Instructors are becoming more and more educated about what to do when students are disruptive, and in turn his officers are getting more reports—but this is good, he said: “The earlier we know about things, the better.”
Colleen Harvel is another Butte College instructor who, like Rogers, teaches for the Language Education and Development (LEAD) Department; she also teaches at Shasta College. In a telephone interview, she recounted some of her experiences at the two colleges.
One time, when Harvel asked a disruptive student to leave the classroom, he challenged her authority by refusing, so she continued the lesson, then casually said she had to step down the hall for a moment. She called campus police, who removed the student. After class ended, she found officers in the hallway who asked her if she wanted an escort to her car—they said the student had “blown up” when questioned.
Harvel had another incident just last semester, when an older male student was repeatedly disruptive and at times domineering in class and was angry he was getting B’s on his papers. One day, when Harvel was collecting papers at the beginning of class, he violently slammed his paper down on the desk. She asked him to leave the classroom, then contacted campus police and filed an incident report after class had ended. That student never came back.
Another time, she said, a student with consistently poor hygiene wrote papers that were way off topic, one in particular that was “so off base and included expletives and graphic references to female genitalia.” When one day that student made a flagrantly disrespectful comment to her during class, she asked him to leave. “He flipped me off as he left,” she recalled. She filed an incident report, and he came back—but eventually dropped the class.
Another time, she had a student submit a paper in which he talked about “demonic voices in his head.” She consulted with the college’s mental-health counselor, and that student also never returned. Because of time constraints, she could not track the student down and see if she could get him resituated in class. “I’m supposed to be teaching in the classroom, not tracking down students with undiagnosed psychiatric disorders,” she said.
Harvel said these incidents have caused her to be more alert. “When I arrive at campus in my car, I get out and pause for a minute and look around. When I’m approaching my classroom, I look around—I feel I have to.”
She also said that when she has a student with an issue, she is quicker to take the student to task and even to ask the student to leave. “It’s a shame,” she said, “because I would rather not. But I am the leader in my classroom, and therefore I am responsible for my students’ safety.”
Harvel said maybe she’s “old school,” but in her generation people did not behave in the classroom the way many students are behaving today.
That’s true even in programs like the police academy and nursing, where it’s presumed students will be focused on learning. Shaaron Vogel, Butte College nursing instructor, said some of her students have come to class drunk or otherwise intoxicated, and disruptions are much more frequent than in the past. She has observed that students seem “more stressed” than ever before, and many of them would have nothing if they didn’t have financial aid.
Rogers’ incident early last semester provoked Teresa Ward, who chairs the LEAD Department, along with Samia Yaqub, dean of language arts and humanities, to realize the potential for violence in the classroom needed greater attention.
They held a training for the 50 instructors in the LEAD Department, the majority of whom teach remedial courses and are thus “in the trenches” with some of the college’s most challenged students. (Instructors in some of Butte’s other departments have received trainings as well.) The training included presentations from Sloan and Hernandez as well as Andy Duch, a lieutenant with the Butte County Sheriff’s Office and Butte College police academy part-time instructor, who spoke on “Voluntary Compliance and De-Escalation.”
“We’re all teaching in a different era,” Duch said. He pointed out cash-strapped counties now send their chronic mental-health clients to Butte College for a sort of day treatment, telling them if they sign up for a class or two, they can get free student health services, free counseling and other perks.
Added to that mix are veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder and/or traumatic brain injury and who struggle with a difficult re-entry into civilian life. Duch said there are gang members on campus, too.
Sloan said “The incidence of violence against staff members is rare,” but he also acknowledged campus police “have taken guns and knives off people,” and there was a month in 2009 when officers involuntarily committed 15 people to Butte County Behavioral Health.
Rogers and Harvel both think a lot more could be done at Butte College and other community college campuses to create a safe environment. Rogers believes campus safety should be addressed during student orientations, and students should be encouraged to dial 911 if any kind of incident begins to unfold during class.
Additionally, she said, it would be good if campus police “made their presence more visible” on the Butte campus, as campus police do at Chico State, where she also teaches. She added that instructors should include in their syllabi a section on campus safety. And she wouldn’t mind seeing a panic button in every classroom.
Harvel would like to see more faculty workshops on safety. She wants the colleges to print up “contact cards” with names, numbers, and locations of student services, so when students have some kind of problem going on, instructors could hand them a card with the exact information of where to go for help. Like Rogers, she feels campus safety issues should be much more comprehensively addressed during student orientations and that conversations should take place there about “what constitutes acceptable classroom behavior.”
The explosion of campus problems is not at all exclusive to Butte College, Renville said—it’s pervasive. He offered an example: Just recently, officers at San Francisco City College confiscated three semi-automatic weapons from a student. “We are always only an inch away from something dramatic happening on campus.”
And while campus-related incidents are escalating more profoundly on community college campuses, he said, state universities have seen an uptick in such problems as well.
Butte College has a Mental Health Advisory Group that reviews students who have mental-health problems and makes recommendations about their enrollment. In addition, a haven—called The Safe Place—has been created on campus for domestic-violence victims. Staff development workshops were held last week that addressed both faculty rights and student rights in the context of classroom and campus incidents.
For students who enter the disciplinary process, their cases are considered by a Judicial Affairs Council, which gives them due process and provides recommendations regarding their fate, which is ultimately decided by the college’s president. Renville described the judicial-affairs process as “a very good process that allows students to change their ways.” Students who do not like the president’s decision can exercise their right to a judicial-appeals process.
Renville, who called himself a “progressive disciplinarian,” said he and others make every effort to keep a student in school whenever that is appropriate; sometimes, however, it isn’t. “Our first concern is the safety of the students and staff at our campus.”