Education Under Fire

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Sitting at his desk, the only thing on San Diego State University Professor Subrata Bhattacharjee’s mind was a graduate student’s thesis defense for which he was already a few minutes late. Just as he was about to leave, he heard a knock at the door. It was Aug. 15, 1996, the day that being late to that appointment saved his life.

Earlier in the day, mechanical engineering graduate student Frederick Martin Davidson had hidden a handgun and five magazines of ammunition in a first aid kit in the room where he was to defend his thesis. He resented his professors, believing that they were conspiring against him by giving him useless tasks, rejecting his thesis and preventing him from finding a job. As the session began, Davidson took out the handgun and opened fire. Assistant Professor Chen Liang and Associate Professors Constantinos Lyrintzis and Preston Lowrey were killed, and Davidson called 911 himself after the shooting. He was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without parole.

“The emotion I felt was one of devastation,” Bhattacharjee said. “They were not just my colleagues … so it was very hard to get over this.”

Bhattacharjee considered Lowrey his best friend, and he also was close friends with Liang. Although the incident drastically impacted Bhattacharjee, he said SDSU was not as affected in the long run. Requests for interviews with SDSU administrators were not returned.

“With passage of time, sort of nothing changed, and people kind of brushed it aside, tried to forget and move on,” Bhattacharjee said. “But personally, I am very much affected in the sense that I lost some of the best friends I had.”

According to a Feb. 10 report jointly released by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action, two groups seeking to create new and stronger gun laws, there have been 44 school shootings in the United States since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. There were 13 shootings in the first six weeks of 2014 alone.

“I think the real reason we see more of these incidents these days … is because social media has [made it] so easy to become famous,” Bhattacharjee said. “Deranged minds would like to be famous. People can act out their fantasy more easily … and it is so easy to create mayhem by just getting a gun and finding the target.”

Assistant Principal Rob Coppo, who is in charge of safety at TPHS, also thinks of school shootings in terms of “mayhem” and “chaos.”

“Ultimately, that’s what a school shooting is: creating chaos,” Coppo said. “Every school shooter is out there to create chaos because [his or her] mind is chaos.”

Principal David Jaffe and Coppo said that by creating an environment where the students and staff feel connected, tragedies like school shootings may be prevented. According to Jaffe, the TPHS administration tries to organize “very specific, intentional things” to connect the student body, like Challenge Days and the Peer Assistant Listeners program.

“If you feel safe, you might not be having troubles, but if you know someone who is, you feel comfortable sharing,” Jaffe said. “That’s the best way to prevent [such incidents].”

TPHS also employs two different lockdown practices: when there is an active shooter on campus, the school is under lockdown and operates under police direction, and when notified of a crime in the community, classrooms are locked down, but classes continue.

“We have to decide who it is that we are looking for,” San Diego Police Officer Jordan Wells said. “[The community crime lockdown policy] also makes sure that if someone were to go on campus, they would have nowhere to hide, and that way, we don’t get the school involved.”

The police department occasionally assesses school sites, making sure that they have information on where different things are located on campus in case of an emergency.

According to Jaffe, lockdown procedures have changed since the Sandy Hook shooting, and Coppo attended a training session on procedural changes at the San Diego County Office of Education. Unannounced drills were implemented at TPHS in 2014 as better preparation for actual emergencies, as they instill a genuine sense of danger that announced drills lack. Coppo also said that they were instructed by police never to try to negotiate with a shooter.

“[The police] were clear: Get out of the way. It’s that simple. Don’t be a hero, don’t stop and try to negotiate,” Coppo said. “You’re trying to have a rational conversation with a completely irrational person.”

Similarly, Bhattacharjee said that shooters are usually “slightly mentally disturbed.”

“If you talk about people with mental problems, saying maybe [gun sales] should check on that, there’s the other side thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re saying anybody with mental problems should be treated differently,’” Bhattacharjee said. “But if guns are available easily, we should make sure we can check who is the person who owns that gun.”

On Apr. 16, 2007, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, senior Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people, wounded 17 people and committed suicide, an event labeled the Virginia Tech Massacre. Cho was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder and received therapy and special education support during middle school and high school. In 2005, Cho was declared mentally ill and was ordered to receive treatment by Virginia Special Justice Paul Barnett.

Former Virginia Tech student Heather Davis planned to be on campus to study before class, but had decided to stay home and work instead, a decision she says she is thankful she made. That morning, Davis had received an email alert about a campus shooting from the school and a phone call from a friend on campus telling her to stay home because he was sure he was hearing gunshots on campus. Davis initially believed that someone was simply making a statement on campus and did not worry much about it.

“When I saw on the news that at least 20 were believed to be dead, my heart dropped,” Davis said. “I knew this was not just a political demonstration. I remember crashing onto the carpet in tears as ambulance sirens continued to blare by.”

As students, friends and family tried to contact each other, the number of calls overloaded the cellular networks for at least an hour, according to Davis.

“Utter shock, dismay, confusion [and] anguish is the only way I can describe the way we felt,” Davis said. “Many of us found it too hard to go back right away. The paranoia and fear of going to class was too much for some to bear.”

A “dear friend” of Davis’s was shot four times, but survived and now actively promotes stricter gun laws. As a result of the incident, campus security tightened, a text alert system was implemented, and students were given the option of taking the rest of the semester off. According to Davis, students eventually recovered and the camaraderie on campus was “greater than ever.”

Just as Virginia Tech was majorly impacted by the shooting, the recent Purdue University shooting and stabbing had a large impact on the campus. On Jan. 21, Cody Cousins shot and stabbed Andrew Boldt, and students attended a candlelight vigil held the next day.

“At the candlelight vigil, it was like we all knew [the shooter’s and the victim’s] spirits and intentions in a way,” TPHS alumna and Purdue student Sarah Gustafson (‘13) said. “You didn’t have to know the people, [but] it still impacted us all as fellow [students].”

Jaffe and Coppo’s suggestion of connecting students is not a bulletproof plan. Although the Purdue students are a close-knit community, they were still taken by surprise by the shooting.

“Such a malicious event was never expected,” Gustafson said. “Despite our range of individuals, we are a family. We felt violated in a way because this is home to us.”

Purdue students were notified about the shooting through texts and received updates and warnings regularly. The campus also has “police and firefighters, security buttons every [couple] of feet, email notifications, online resources on the website and more,” according to Gustafson.

“We, overall, felt unsafe on campus for the day, but then realized our campus is the safest one around,” Gustafson said. “[Police] responded within minutes of the shooting and got to the scene immediately.”

However, at SDSU, Lyrintzis, Liang and Lowrey were trapped in a classroom with only one door leading to the hallway, unable to hide or escape. Consequently, Bhattacharjee developed a fear of lecturing in a classroom with just one door.

“I thought the best thing America could do is push to have a second door in every classroom,” Bhattacharjee said. “I think that will save more lives because, yes, some people will die when the shooter starts, but at least some people can run out. But my friends were trapped. They couldn’t run out.”

Sitting at his desk, Bhattacharjee reminisces on weekend parties with Lowrey and brief interactions with Davidson in the hallways. It has been over a decade since the tragedy at SDSU, but the feeling of pure shock from the incident still remains. A gun, a target and a few minutes meant the difference between life and death.

To prevent such incidents from happening, Wells emphasizes that TPHS students should look to teachers for leadership and be able to react and adjust to any possible scenario.

No school community thinks it will be the scene of the next shooting, but preparation will pay off if calamity does strike.