Thoughts on the Tragedy at Purdue

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.

Be safe.

(And if anything happens to me, remember this.)

8 Responses to “Thoughts on the Tragedy at Purdue”

  1. Leah Williams Newell (of Ga Tech fame) Says:

    Thanks Spaf. A poignant dissertation. I understood many more fascets of the day at Purdue from your post. You are so right that many kids will have had some layers of their security blanket peeled away after today.

    I would hope you would get your post republished in a Purdue newsletter or website or school paper that all students will likely read.

    The students don’t need to hear misinformation about how well the law enforcement and emergency procedures worked.

    The students need to learn to have compassion but to look for signs of people and peers with real problems that need help before they become violent.

    Your post touched on many skills to deal with growing into adulthood.


    Leah (Williams) Newell


    • spaf Says:

      Actually, I wrote this more for colleagues and parents of students rather than for students. As you note, most of this wouldn’t reach them.


      • Leah Williams Newell (of Ga Tech fame) Says:

        Students are barely tethered to their parents in most cases by the time they are a year or two down the college rabbit hole, or at least that they will admit.

        Your words of advice to be self aware is something students should be considering in this world more affected with random violence, targeted violence and terrorism. Students need to be identifying their own anger or other emotional distress or someone else’s and when it is to a point where help is needed. Developing personal responsibility.

        I did appreciate your post as a parent of two young adults, both having to work through dicey social issues in their endeavors. But they rarely take advice or cues from mom and dad about social issues anymore.

        Your intended audience (me anyway) was appropriately touched but I disagree because I think the audience should be more for the students. Students are stepping into the unknown and more than anyone need to know to be vigilant about every point you made. Students are building their character and sense of responsibilty.

        Your post is a great building block.

        Also, I think students would be comforted by your post. It demonstrates understanding and compassion for the criminimal and for students at the brink of extreme anger. You sweetly wrap your poetic arms around a student to let them know you understand there are a lot of forces possibly hitting at one time but help is available to get out from under the weight.

        You are right too though. Faculty definitely needs to understand the perspective you have penned. They need to be careful to not exacerbate a situation if they open an eye to spot one.


  2. Andra Martinez Says:

    Thanks for sharing Spaf. My thoughts are with you. I share in the deep sadness and fear that has permeated a community that I genuinely loved being a part of.


  3. Robin Roberts Says:

    First of all, I’m very relieved to know that you and your friends/colleagues are okay! I hadn’t seen this on any of the (obviously lame) net-news feeds that I monitor through the day… or I would have been checking on you like white on rice.

    Second of all – it’s so crushingly sad to see more people choose a gun to deal with a problem they’re having. And people say that all the violence on TV and video games doesn’t desensitize us??? In one brief moment a lot of lives are changed forever. We will keep the Purdue family in our prayers – victims, shooter, everyone. If only society would LEARN something from these tragedies, more than just how to copy-cat them.

    I was quite disturbed at your comment about two former friends. I can imagine that the President of the Anti-Bow-Tie League might like to have you out of the picture, but seriously – someone who used to be your friend could now hate you that much? I don’t doubt you… I’m just trying to wrap my mind around something inconceivable. Life’s too short for that kind of hatred.

    We try to be the poster-children for Smelling the Roses – it’s the one thing we can do with this unusual (and lucky) life that we lead. We try to inspire other people to follow their dreams – whatever they are, and however strange they might be. And we try to remind people to let the sense of wonder and joy rule the heart more than anything else. One of my college roommates graduated and moved to a fabulous new job in Chicago. A few months after graduation she was found murdered in her apartment – they never solved the case. It was a big shock at a pretty young age for me, and after that I found that I always wanted to take time to stop and smell the roses, literally and figuratively. It was a defining event.

    Just so sad. Stay safe out there. Hugs, R&J


  4. Alex Badea Says:

    Thank you for sharing your good thoughts in the aftermath of such a sad and tragic event. I try to see something constructive coming out of such event whenever they happen. This is not always easy, and sometimes not possible. Whenever shooting makes victims in schools and universities, I ask myself how would this have unfolded if there were tighter gun control regulations in place. This may not solve the problem, but would it not reduce the chances of such tragic event happening?
    Stay safe, and warm, and please continue sharing your wisdom with us!


    • spaf Says:

      There is a strict ban on guns on campus, which had no effect whatsoever. As I noted, only 50% of the homicides on campus in the last 20 years or so have been from firearms.

      I believe the problem is more one of mental health awareness and treatment, in general; we will need to wait to hear more about this case. Someone with deep anger and lack of self control plus fixation on a victim will find some way of expressing it — knife, hammer, automobile, poison.


  5. Mehmet Sahinoglu Says:

    Great philosophical article Spaf…
    Mehmet Sahinoglu (a former Purdue faculty and research associate)


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