A few weeks ago a student walked on to the campus of Central Connecticut State University dressed as a ninja, complete with mask and fake sword. This turned out to be a bad idea.
Someone called it in and swarms of police descended upon the campus, locking it down for three hours. The student was arrested, then arrested again after he came back to campus after being told to stay away. He’s no longer a CCSU student as of this writing. There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion anywhere that he intended to frighten or harm anybody, yet he still is going to have to go to court to answer charges of breach of peace and trespassing.
The lesson seems clear enough: don’t bring anything that looks remotely like a weapon onto a college campus, even if it turns out to be a prop.
Clearly, colleges and universities are not going to tolerate any kind of threat of violence to students. “First, you can never be too vigilant nor react too strongly to the threat of violence,” said CCSU President Jack Miller in a statement following the incident. “All potential threats must be taken very seriously, and the response must be a reaction to worst-case scenarios.”
This makes sense for institutions of higher education. There are only so many students of the traditional age graduating high school and heading for college, and if a college or university is perceived as unsafe, students will take their tuition and housing dollars elsewhere. If random, frightening acts of violence happen on campus and if the administration doesn’t react immediately and with overwhelming strength, people will lose faith or go to school somewhere else.
However, if you mix that mindset into a bowl alongside media hype, a number of high-profile mass killings at or around schools and colleges, and a public that is really, really jittery about this kind of school-related violence, you suddenly have a recipe for some serious paranoia. The way we respond to violence and threats of violence is very much informed by culture and conditioning.
It’s very hard to blame the police and the university for reacting the way they did. But on the other hand, if student safety is so important, why did it take Gloria Allred and a high-profile lawsuit to focus attention on sexual assault at the University of Connecticut? Certainly President Herbst says she’s taking sexual assault claims seriously, but if what the plaintiffs in the case say is even remotely true, her administration is hardly backing that up with action. Students ought to be protected from assault and trauma, which is far more common than a single person with a weapon coming on campus looking to shoot people.
And if protecting people from violence is so important, why didn’t an actual shooting in New Haven in October generate this kind of press coverage and this kind of overwhelming police response? Why haven’t Michigan police arrested the man who shot and killed a black woman who came to his house for help after a car accident?
I appreciate the police response in New Britain, I really do. This situation could have turned tragic very fast, and at the time there was no way anyone could have known that the student in question didn’t have real weapons. I just wish we’d dedicate even a fraction of this sort of energy and time to fighting other forms of violence and protecting other victims.
I also wish we’d start seriously addressing the root causes of violence. While we’ve become very good at reacting to a crisis, at least in some cases, we remain abysmal at preventing them. Violence has become so common in this country that it only really captures the public’s attention when it’s excessive. The anniversary of Newtown is coming up, but in that time more than 10,000 people have been reported killed by guns in this country. Mild gun controls promised by Congressional leaders never materialized, and access to mental health services remains as spotty as ever in many parts of the country. The new health care law will change some of that, hopefully, but it will remain a problem.
In the end, the response to a guy with a mask and a fake sword on a college campus says a lot about us and our priorities. We need to place more value on reducing violence in all its forms, and protecting all victims, if we want to live in a healthier, less violent society.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.