Back from the AHA

Posted on January 7, 2008. Filed under: research |

Well, I’m back from the AHA and trying to get unpacked and organized (ha!) The AHA blog and History News Network both give reports on the meeting highlights. Since my session was on a contemporary event, I was disappointed that HNN decided not to cover it along with sessions on 9/11, the Iraq war, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, among others. [I was also bummed that the University of Michigan book display did not include my book, which is now officially out and available for purchase!] So, here’s an overview of “Secure .. for Whom? Campus Violence in Historical Perspective from the Bell Tower to Blacksburg“, without the benefit of Youtube:

First up was Kathleen Jones from Virginia Tech, who was fortunate to be out of town visiting her daughter and new granddaughter during the shootings. The title of her presentation was “The Thirty-Third Victim: Representations of Seung Hui Cho in the Aftermath of the ‘Virginia Tech Massacre.'” She focused on how media coverage shifted from presenting Cho as the “face of evil” to “symbol of mental illness” and the failure of mental health services, as well as his erasure from campus memorials, or as she called it his “public death.” Her major point was that despite the fact that this was a murder-suicide, “the issue of suicide is virtually absent in a report about protecting campuses from future deadly ‘rampages.'” She reported the alarming estimate that there are 1100 college student suicides in the U.S. each year — so far this year, there have been three at Virginia Tech alone. She concludes that while it is important to have greater openness about crime on campus, “it is equally vital to have greater openness about suicide.”

Next was Steven Mintz’ paper, “The Texas Sniper: The First Student Rampage of the Media Age,” which I’ve already commented on in an earlier post. To this I would add that he repeatedly refers to Charles Whitman as a “juvenile” even though he was in his mid-twenties and married.

In my presentation, I picked up where Steve left off and discussed developments in college mental health since the mid-1960s. I mentioned that Dana Farnsworth at Harvard criticized UT psychiatrist Maurice Dean Healy for failing to report Whitman’s thoughts about going into the tower with a deer rifle and shooting up the place to campus authorities. As promised, I mentioned Szasz’ critique of college psychiatrists, referring to them as “double agents” who pledged to serve both students and the administration, “but owing real loyalty to neither.” I focused on students’ demands for rights to privacy in mental health care, which culminated in passage of the U.S. Family Educational and Privacy Act of 1974. I concluded by arguing that discussions of security needed to include providing a welcoming environment for individuals with psychiatric diagnoses, and cautioned against the kind of profiling that followed 9/11.

The session ended with Roger Lane who gave some “Thoughts on School Shootings.” Like Jones, Lane suggested that school shootings are “in fact forms of suicide.” He also criticized Steve for offering ex-post facto diagnosis of Whitman. Although his talk was funny and somewhat irreverent (he referred to his suspicions about “shrinks as finks”) he ended on a rather pessimistic note, stating that he didn’t expect any solutions in his lifetime. He mentioned that Haverford has 13 deans and nine counselors — something that our counseling service, with only 2 fulltime counselors for 12,000 students, would envy.

Attendance for the session was rather low — about 12-15 people wandered in and out — and questions centered around safety issues like, what do you do with students who make concrete threats of violence to specific individuals. It seems to me that this is a no-brainer — but apparently some campuses don’t kick students out for saying they are going to get their guns and blow away their professors!

The good news is that the Marlie Wasserman from Rutgers University Press attended the session, said that Kathleen and my papers were the most compelling (yay!) and said she is interested in having us put together a collection of essays on the subject of campus violence. So, all in all, this was a success.

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    Heather Munro Prescott

    Heather Munro Prescott

    Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT.

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