They Did Not Enroll for This

naspa faculty

Susan D. Longerbeam

September 20, 2016

They Did Not Enroll for This

Northern Arizona University, 10-09-15

They did not enroll for this: awakening with the crude sounds of gunfire and screams; seeing the shooting from their bedroom windows; crying with fear under a reception desk, shakily dialing 911; performing CPR on a dying friend in the parking lot; returning to a childhood home just one short month into college—and to a parent’s bed, unable to sleep alone.

These stories are a fraction of those told by the survivors. At the time of the shooting, I was faculty for a student affairs practicum class. The graduate students in practicum were mentoring undergraduates closely involved with the crisis. Tremendous suffering was revealed from undergraduates to graduate students to me. The cumulative pain in their stories is immeasurable. The loss in learning continued throughout the year.

Though U.S. gun violence always signifies untold suffering, our one experience illuminates clearly the connection between laws and consequences—and our responsibilities as higher education leaders.

Legal Background

It was almost exactly six years earlier, September 2009, when Arizona A.R.S. § 12-781, nicknamed Guns in Parking Lots, and Guns at Work, took effect. The law was designed to restrict employers from prohibiting employees the option to leave guns in parked cars while at work.  The new law was not meant as a long term gun storage solution; it certainly was not intended for the storage of guns in glove compartments in a university residence hall parking lot for a full semester.  Prior to the law, Arizona universities had offered students who bring guns to campus storage options with the campus police.

Back in 2009, some university regents prophetically expressed concern when implementing Guns in Parking Lots. Tragically, six years after the law was implemented, a first year student hastily grabbed his gun from his glove compartment late one night and shot four students in the residence hall parking lot, leaving one dead, one in critical condition—and injuring an entire campus community.  One might understand a flaw in a new law. Yet even after a campus crisis precipitated by violence that would have been a fistfight without a gun, our state leaders have not requested an exception to the law.  To request an exception on behalf of those for whom it was not intended is not unreasonable. In fact, the law already has a precedent for exceptions, for example a provision for guns in alternate parking lots.

Part of the reason for this lack of leadership is that our governing body has been on the defensive, reacting to worse—campus concealed carry legislation. Unlike appointed and elected officials, I argue that we as student affairs professionals can use our standards and knowledge to exert a proactive stance on gun laws.

Claiming our Professional Expertise

As student affairs professionals, we have the tools to transform the conversation about guns from reactive to proactive.  NASPA has provided us with tools—a strong gun statement and a state policy report.

Some faculty not in student affairs have resisted a conversation about guns on campus with the refrain: “it is a political issue”—as though nothing can be done. Yet in student affairs, our professional competencies offer an equity definition of physical safety for all, one which supersedes politics.  And our professional ethics call us to generativity— to an unbroken chain of non-malfeasance—from undergraduate student to graduate student to faculty and administrators. We have the opportunity to exert our professional expertise by speaking out about guns on campus.

We can also claim our professional expertise about college student development. We know that traditional aged college students are flooded with challenges, particularly in their first college year: emotionally, socially, cognitively, ethically, spiritually, sexually, and interpersonally.  Students’ discerning best instantaneous reactions under highly stressful situations are incongruous with their otherwise experiencing a high amount of challenge. Yet our current laws send the message that storing guns in cars is a reasonable option for first year students living on campus. Students deserve better. We can help students by communicating our expertise.

How Am I Supposed to Feel Safe to Learn?

Unfortunately we live in a time when many of us have asked ourselves how we might respond to a crisis of gun violence. A graduate student commented in class that it is not only student developmental readiness that may not equip us to handle the presence of guns; not many of us have the human developmental readiness to respond effectively to gun violence. Aside perhaps from highly trained firearms experts, not many of us could make split second decisions in horrific situations and have good outcomes. We are not firearms experts—we are educators.

I think it is time to stand up and say it is not normal to live with the threat of gun violence in a place of learning. With due respect to the good intentions of preparedness training, we should not accommodate not-normal. It is time to call senseless, senseless.

We are called in our profession to walk alongside students to ease the long and complex passage into older adulthood. That passage should not include the need to survive gun violence. Violence is incompatible with learning. As one survivor said to me, “How am I supposed to feel safe to learn?”

This blog is dedicated to the survivors and first responders in the Mountain View parking lot on the horrible night of October 9, 2015.

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