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Student Violence: What You Should Know

February 4, 2002

There's something particularly heinous about violence on a college campus. Like a church bombing, it offends even the most hardened human sensibilities.

But two weeks ago, a struggling Nigerian law school student went on a shooting spree at Grundy, West Virginia's Appalachian School of Law, killing a dean, a faculty member and a student.

The attack came just hours after Peter Odighizuwa, 42, was suspended from the school.

The shooting has ratcheted up anxiety levels among faculty members as well as administrators, making them wonder at least fleetingly, Could that happen to me?

The answer is, it's unlikely. Violence against faculty and administrators is rare. But it can happen. Fortunately, it also can be prevented in many cases.

Most acts of school violence are committed by people who could be categorized in one of two groups: sociopaths, who tend to be bullies and manipulators; or psychopaths, socially inept "loners." Odighizuwa belonged to the latter group. He was described by a classmate as "a real quiet guy who kept to himself and… didn't talk to anybody."

That was a red flag, says Dr. Patti Wilson, assistant professor of psychology and one of two coordinators in Austin Peay's school psychology program. "The first thing to look for is a student who doesn't interact with other students, a person who doesn't seem to have a network of support."

A second characteristic: extreme frustration. "People who commit acts of violence often feel they have nowhere to turn, no one to turn to," Wilson says. "They feel that they have no options."

Odighizuwa, thrown to the ground by students after killing 33-year-old law student Angela Dales, shouted, "I have nowhere to go! I have nowhere to go!"

Many acts of school violence are committed by sociopaths. Their behavior may be marked by aggressiveness, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're physically aggressive, Wilson says. "They may be verbally or emotionally aggressive." So the student you see screaming profanities at his girlfriend in the parking lot may merit an attentive eye, she suggests.

Violent behavior also is correlated with gender. Aggressors who use deadly force are more likely to be male than female. "We have to be careful about profiling, but the fact is most acts of school violence are perpetrated by males. Not that girls are less destructive. They just tend to express their anger in more underhanded ways," Wilson says. A female student who feels she's been unfairly treated by a professor is more likely to slash the professor's tires than shoot him or her, she adds.

An act of aggression is also more likely to take place when a student has failed. "People come to college with a goal," says Wilson. "If they fail, it can impact their job prospects, the view their family holds of them and their own perceptions of self-worth. When we get into college, there's a need to prove ourselves."

The stress of achieving academic success can push a student with fragile coping skills over the edge. "There are more pressures in college," Wilson says. "Transportation, housing, interpersonal relationships, finances. And students may find themselves with people who are very different. When you add religious differences to the mix, there's enormous potential for problems."

Protecting Students, Protecting Yourself
So if a faculty or staff member sees a student who seems withdrawn or aggressive, isolated and on the brink of failure, what should he or she do? "Approach them," says Wilson. "Not with the mindset of getting them in line, but with an offer of support and friendship. 'I've noticed you seem a little quiet. Is the class moving too fast? Is there anything I can do to help? Tell me what's going on.'"

The message to project is "somebody cares," she says.

Be prepared to step in and offer meaningful assistance, Wilson says. "Every faculty member should be networked in the community so they'll know what to do, where to refer troubled students. Maybe counseling is the answer, or maybe karate would be a good place for that student to learn to channel aggression."

What should a faculty or staff member do if confronted by a violent student? Wilson offers some tips.

Remain as calm as possible. "Don't shout. Don't debate with them. Don't tell them 'You don't want to do this,' because at that moment they do. Let them know you want to understand why they feel this way. Say 'Talk to me. I want to understand.' The more you can get them to talk, the calmer they may become," she says.

Stay put. Don't suggest that the two of you go someplace and talk. Don't go where other people could be endangered, she says.

Don't rush. Talk slowly. Move slowly. Calm behavior and patience on your part may help the student become less agitated.

Listen. "What the student is looking for is to be heard," Wilson says. Long-term frustration has led them to believe they must take extraordinary measures to make that happen.

Offer options, support. People become desperate because they feel they're against a wall. Talk about possible solutions and alternatives. Let them know there is another way. But be careful to suggest real possibilities." Wilson says, and to convey a sense of real concern. "Offer not only words of advice but your extended hand, your desire to help them through this."

Look for an exit. But don't be obvious about it, Wilson says. "If your eyes move around too much you'll look anxious, and that can accelerate the situation. Or they may read your fear as anger."

Averting Disaster
While it's important to know what to do in the middle of an emergency, it's even more beneficial to know how to avoid such situations.

Here are some additional tips from Wilson:

If you observe a student acting suspiciously, contact security.

If you've had an uncomfortable interaction with a student in the past, make sure you meet with the student only when others are present or at least nearby, just in case there's a problem.

If you're leaving the campus after dark and you have any concerns about possible reprisal from a student, ask security officials to escort you to your car.

If a student accosts you, don't try to overpower him. Both of you are likely to be hurt. It is best to try to "outsmart" and outlast them, Wilson says. Ask the student if it would be possible for you to contact a loved one, just so they won't worry. Have the campus police number-4848-memorized. That way, if you're allowed to make a phone call, you can call them.

Carry a cell phone if you can, so if the student's attention is diverted you can dial 911.

Wilson offers one final piece of advice: Prevent so you won't have to react. "Faculty should get to know their students. Let them know you're available to talk, that you want to help. The more 'perceived' support they have, the less likely they are to become desperate and angry." And, we might add, dangerous.