Yeah, it was a tough day on campus today, although my day wasn’t nearly as bad as that of others.
The news account presents it rather simply:
A Purdue University engineering student was killed and a peer charged with his slaying Tuesday after a midday shooting in a basement classroom.
That doesn’t convey the shock and the disruption. One student with a problem walked into a class being taught by a TA, and shot him several times. He was arrested as he was walking out of the building. No motive is yet known, but really, there is no rational motive — the suspect is almost certainly mentally unstable. There is no reason in our society for a college student in his 20s to seek out and kill anyone, let alone a peer in a public place.
It was not a campus shooting similar to what has happened at other schools and universities in recent years. This was not a case of an angry, unstable person unloading on anyone in sight. This was targeted and personal — and is really a case of workplace violence. With a small change in circumstances, the same thing could have happened at a local restaurant. It would have shocked us all had that been the venue, but it probably would not have made the news out of the region. Context matters and a shooting in a school seems to provoke a more visceral reaction than a shooting at a party or a business. And the news story today of what is undoubtedly a greater tragedy, of photographic proof of many thousands of deaths by torture in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, wasn’t even noted by most around here. Some murders seem to shock more than others, although each demeans us all.
Still, a number of people grieve tonight, here, for this particular case and perhaps as well for the shattering of their own innocence and sense of safety. Many of our students have just begun to become aware of their own mortality, and few have experienced the death of a young person in their “group.” As a campus community, this was a shock for a great many of them … as well as to the faculty and staff who look after them.
There was a candlelight vigil tonight in single digit temps that attracted many hundreds. Tomorrow, classes will not be held as we have a day of reflection and mourning for Andy Boldt, 21, a senior in Engineering who had so much to look forward to. I hope people also grieve some for the suspect, Cody Cousins, 23, who must have some deep problems, and who may just have thrown away most of his future. And I wonder how Professor David Meyer will deal with this — both students were his TAs, and the shooting occurred in the recitation section of one of his courses.
If there is any good that came of this, it was to see campus emergency measures work. The alert went out quickly, and the campus went into lockdown (which most people paid attention to). What really worked well was the police response. The suspect went into the basement room where the victim was, shot him, and then walked upstairs and out of the building — where he was immediately arrested by the first officer on the scene. First police response was within 2 minutes. Within a few minutes more, the building was being cleared by over two dozen armed officers from the West Lafayette and Purdue police departments.
This past summer, the Purdue and WL police were using the building where CERIAS is housed for “active shooter” drills. They ran scenario after scenario, in full gear, at full speed, for several days. I talked with some of the officers, and they indicated that they train regularly for all sorts of incidents, including hostages, bombs, and more. This was simply one more, at a time when the buildings were mostly empty. Most faculty and students only encounter them for speeding or have drunk too much alcohol, but the men and women on our local forces are just great professionals. Along with the Purdue and WL fire departments and EMS crews, we have an incredible support system here. It worked, although it was for something we didn’t want to have tested.
I am in my 27th year at Purdue. This is only the 4th homicide on campus that I recall in all that time. That’s 4 too many, but for what is effectively a small city of 40,000 (that’s just the campus population), that’s a lot better than the national average. The last shooting on campus was 17 years ago. (The last two homicides were by hammer — 50% of the homicides on campus in my time here were not from firearms.)
As a faculty member I have had to confront angry students. I have had to deal with students, alumni, and even some colleagues with obvious mental disorders. Stress, lack of sleep, and drugs can activate latent problems, so student life is a crucible from which all manner of demons arise. Some disorders with organic causes don’t show up until mid-to-late 20s or 30s. So, sometimes we see people who are fine, but a month later they have developed problems. It is sad, but it happens, and sometimes the authority figure at the head of the classroom becomes the focus of their attention.
I have had threats of violence made against me, including death threats (with some outstanding). I’ve sought out resources to try to help those people. I’m not sure we provide that for our TAs. For too many of our young people on campus, their only experience with frustration, hostility or danger has been in games on their iPhones and Xboxes so they don’t know how to handle those in the real world. That’s a problem, and they don’t know it’s a problem. I wonder what we can do to address it.
As I reflect on all that happened today, I am fortunate that so many people cared enough to contact me to see how I was. (At least, I assume that is the case; it may be I am simply the first person who comes to mind when Purdue is mentioned.) I think most of them were concerned about my well-being; the two former friends who might actually be happy had I been the victim have been quiet. (And no, that is not an attempt at humor.)
As with every day, when you awake, realize it may be the last day you have, or that someone dear to you might have. Traffic accidents, heart attacks, fires, killer flu, deranged students…. there are many things that can change the world in an instant. Don’t put off telling someone you care. Regrets can last a very long time. And when you can say something nice to someone — “good job,” “you make a difference,” or even “thank you” — you might just try to do so.
(And if anything happens to me, remember this.)