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How shocked and saddened I was at the news of the Virginia Tech shootings – I think all of us – students and parents alike – are horrified that such an unspeakable thing could happen, again. The shootings at Columbine also happened in April and it is said that many of these types of incidents happen in the spring. Why would that be? The only thing I can think of is that April is a very stressful time of year for all students. They are under immense pressure, having completed a hard academic year and now are faced with the usual round of final exams. They are broke, having long ago exhausted their student loans, they are probably depressed after a long winter – at least here in Canada – and they are tired. No wonder that every year there are reports of suicides amongst the student populations of many universities and colleges across the world.

 

When I was at university the older ones amongst us – the ones who had already raised their families and worked for years before returning to school – used to laughing joke that “come November that guy or that girl will be standing on the bridge looking longingly at the river once the reality of too little study and too many assignments neglected kicks in”. The same could be said of the spring. Those that survived the mid-terms in the winter and are still hanging in there have to face the finals. Most of the students at universities are young and haven’t yet learned to shield their emotions or to deal with stress quite as effectively as all of us so-called adults. They don’t have as heavy a fence around them as we do – the one that comes from having to fight against the hard-knocks and vicissitudes of life. It’s no wonder really why some of them just snap – fortunately not quite as badly as the shooter at VT – but many of them do indeed just jump over that bridge.

 

Many campuses – mine included – have counseling services and psychological treatment centers available at all times, but of course they are only useful if they are used. Not everyone even realizes they have a problem or tries to seek help. And then there are the people who may be beyond help, the ones who have somehow slipped through the cracks and are teetering on the high wire – any sudden event likely to push them off and down into oblivion. This may be what happened in Virginia. A seriously disturbed individual got through the system despite all the checks and balances. And there were some who tried to tackle the problem before it got too far. But no-one of course knew quite how far that would be. Teachers deal with violent and aggressive students every day, it’s a sad fact of life. Those students can usually be dealt with effectively, but legally we cannot just remove someone from the main stream because we think they are ‘odd’ or a bit ‘weird’ – that could only lead to profiling and all the social dangers that that entails. Unless someone makes a direct threat or exhibits some form of violent behavior our hands are tied. The battered wife can go to the police as many times as she likes and they will do nothing until she suffers real injury – sometimes even death. We use the language of violence every day – how many times have you said to your kid “I’m going to kill you if you don’t go to bed right now!” – or “I would kill to have that car/pool/new house – whatever”. The police can’t show up at your door every time you threaten to “knock someone’s block off”, can they? This is the price we pay – willingly – for a free society.  We thankfully do not live in a police state – not at least in the Western world.  

 

How do we know that someone is about to blow? Is there some sort of writing on the wall that says “that bloke over there is about to go postal, go get the butterfly net?” – No. I think we can only try to be more aware of what is going on in the lives of people around us and to act if we see something that is wrong. Too many of us are willing to stand by and do nothing. They say that there are three kinds of reactions in people faced with crisis – there are those who act, those who freeze, and those who panic. I guess we should all try to be one of those who act. Think about it – what would you do if a gun-man burst in your door? How would you react? Is there anything you could do? Would arming everyone, as the Americans believe, be the solution? The argument goes that if the kids at VT had had guns they could have ‘taken out’ the shooter before he got too far. Is this true? It might very well have had the opposite effect – arming everyone might also arm a few others who have contemplated the same sort of violence. People sadly commit suicide every day. We read about it in the paper. And of course if you’re going to kill yourself anyway who cares how many others you take with you? If you have a gun handy…

 

There are no easy answers – perhaps all this media coverage adds to the problem. Perhaps it inspires other ‘crazies’ to act out their dark fantasies, perhaps it’s just that there are so many barriers between people now that we cannot share our troubles anymore. Maybe ‘community’ is gone. Maybe the extended family and its support net is gone. Maybe talking about it, even in an anonymous blog, can go some way to easing the pain. My heart goes out to all those who have suffered this week.

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