Dealing With The Ethical Crisis Of A Potentially Dangerous Student: One Teacher's Perspective On The "I Am Adam Lanza" Phenomenon

I’ve had literally dozens of students like this over the years. Were they ticking time bombs, or were they garden-variety teenagers and young adults who were struggling and venting?
Publish date:
December 21, 2012

[The essays inspired in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy have reached their own level of controversy and debate. We received this editorial, and after our own debate on whether to run it, we decided the discussion raised is worth sharing. Let us know what you think. -- Jane]

Like Liza Long, author of the controversial blog post about loving and fearing one’s own violent teenager, and the anonymous psychiatrist who penned the companion piece at xoJane, I have met young adults like Adam Lanza. And Seung-Hui Cho. And countless other troubled, possibly ill, possibly dangerous teenagers and adults who needed help that I either couldn’t give or simply didn’t know they needed. In more than twenty years of teaching high school and community college, I’ve seen them more than once.

A few years ago, I had to file a restraining order against a student who slept outside my office and often left me voicemails on Friday afternoons comprised of her suicidal ideations, but assuring me that if I didn’t see her on Monday, it wouldn’t be my fault. She had a team of people at my college on the run: from her disability counselor (a saint) to the Dean of Student Services to the President of the college, whose assistant she lied her way past to see. I didn’t think she was dangerous. I wasn’t scared of her, even when the campus police told me I should be. But she left me alone after that, and I was glad.

Years earlier, a young man told me via email that he “didn’t know what he would do” next time he came to class. He was upset that I wasn’t allowing him to make up an entire quarter’s worth of work (I hadn’t seen him since week two) and said “I couldn’t stop him” from taking the final. An adjunct new to my institution (and to teaching college) at the time, I didn’t really know what to do. I was fortunate to have an office of counseling services to call, and a campus police force to rely on. They stationed someone outside my room the night of the final. The student never showed up.

Was he was just a pissed off kid making angry, empty threats because he knew he had screwed up and had nothing to lose? Or was he a desperate and distraught young man with legitimate problems I exacerbated? I am almost certain it was the former, but I can’t be sure.

What about the guy who always wore the hood of his sweatshirt up and would not speak to or make eye contact with me, even when I addressed him by name? Or the bullied eighth grader who told the whole class he’d “get them all someday”? Or the girl who wrote paper after paper about how much she hated her parents? Or the high school kid who set the boys’ restroom on fire? Or the painfully shy and palpably depressed sixteen-year-old whose mother’s death a few years prior had almost destroyed him, and whose father’s impending remarriage seemed likely to be his undoing?

I’ve had literally dozens of students like this over the years. Were they ticking time bombs, or were they garden-variety teenagers and young adults who were struggling and venting? In most cases, I’ve been fortunate to have colleagues better trained than I whose help I could enlist. But in others, it’s not really that simple.

Of all of these, only one student actually scared me, and it wasn’t the kid who led me to post a guard outside my classroom or the one against whom I filed a restraining order. It was the silent guy who wouldn’t look at me. When I first read accounts of the Virginia Tech shooter’s affect in his English class, my blood ran cold. I felt as if I had met him before, in my own classroom, so striking were the similarities.

And yet my student never once did, said, or wrote anything that telegraphed malice or intent to do himself or anyone else harm. He did not write about anything violent, but his papers were strange -- rambling and tangential and paranoid at times. They were poorly written. I worried about making him angry if I gave them the poor grades they deserved, but I did anyway, and he accepted them without comment. By mid term, he had disappeared. I was relieved, but wary about when he might return.

There is no office to call when someone just gives you the creeps, and no ethical way to deny them an education just because of a bad feeling. In short: teachers and counselors do what they can to “identify” students who may be a risk to themselves or others. Most times, we’re pretty good at it, and we might help a little. Other times, there’s nothing we can put our fingers on. In the wake of tragedies like Sandy Hook, a chorus of critics ask, “Why didn’t someone do something?” The answer is often, “They did.” But it happened anyway.

So, it turns out, it’s the guns. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As a teacher, I also feel like I know Noah Pozner, and Madeline Hsu, and Charlotte Bacon and seventeen other first graders. In other words, I’m not only the one who is supposed to ferret out the trouble before it starts, but also the one to stop it when it does -- to execute lockdown drills, and should the worst come to pass, throw my body between the gunman and my charges. I like to think that I could do this. I’m humbled that so many did, and grieve that so many died anyway.

But wait! Surely this is proof that teachers still don’t do enough. Surely, they should be allowed to carry guns. Because a kid on a suicide mission with a 30 round magazine could be stopped by the knowledge that someone in the building may or may not be nearby and may or may not be carrying a weapon that s/he may or may not be able to reach for in time. And a class or two spent shooting at paper targets may or may not prepare him/her to act with lightning reflexes and accuracy before the Bushmaster is discharged into his/her face.

Arming teachers is counter to everything I know as an educator, both viscerally and intellectually. The best learning, especially at the primary and secondary levels, takes place in an atmosphere of trust and respect, in places where students feel physically and emotionally safe. It doesn’t make kids feel safe to know that there are more guns, even when they are in the hands of the good guys. No, it makes them worry about the bad guys, and causes them to live in a state of heightened anxiety.

Some of them already live in households or neighborhoods where they are constantly threatened and suffer learning problems because of it. Gun advocates will say that the kids wouldn't have to know their trusted teachers and principals were armed, but at least one argument I’ve read in the last week actually held that teachers should be able to carry weapons as long as they were not concealed. I can’t keep up.

I’ve heard many protest that gun safe zones are easy targets -- that kids who go to school in them are “sitting ducks.” Tell that to the people who went to see "Batman" on a Friday night or happened to be doing their grocery shopping on a Saturday morning in Tucson. We are all sitting ducks when guns are in virtually unlimited supply. Both Colorado and Arizona have concealed carry laws. Those shooters did not appear to be cowed by the knowledge that someone with a holstered handgun might get to them first.

I don’t fancy myself immune to the dangers of my profession (which are, in truth, minimal), but I refuse to be a part of the culture of paranoia and fear that pervades discussions about safety in the wake of tragedy.

Part of the collective grieving and healing process is establishing causality, both as a way to protect ourselves from bodily harm and from the nearly unbearable psychic vulnerability that such tragedies expose. It is too awful to think that such things simply cannot be prevented. Parents, psychologists, and teachers play a role, because we all know Adam Lanza. But if, despite all of our best efforts, someone is bent on killing and is willing to die in pursuit of that goal, there may be nothing we can do to stop them if they have easy, legal access to semiautomatic assault rifles and thirty round magazines and hollowpoint bullets. We must make it more difficult. My job is hard enough already, thanks.