Chapman professors debate how to prevent school shooters

A still from the “Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an Active Shooter Event” video recommended by Chapman University Public Safety.


Some Chapman professors are debating how to best respond – and prepare their students – in the event a gunman comes to the university, much like the mass shooting resulting in 17 deaths in Parkland, FL last week.

The conversation began when Tom Zoellner, an associate professor of English, sent an email to his Wilkinson College colleagues about reviewing active shooter protocol in classes. This discussion developed from the national debate on how educators can prepare for the unthinkable. Just this week, President Trump endorsed a National Rifle Association proposal to arm teachers to increase school security against mass shootings.

Meanwhile at Chapman, Zoellner’s stance led other professors to discuss the best way to take on the topic with students: is preparation and training, encouraging political activism, or weaving relevant discussions into curriculum most effective?

The discourse began when Zoellner explained in his email that in light of the Parkland shooting, he would be taking time in each of his classes to go over Public Safety’s recommended active shooter procedures.

“This is the unfortunate world in which we live: events like this are plausible,” Zoellner said. “In the unlikely but possible enough scenario that it happens to Chapman, I want to have a plan.”

In the email, Zoellner linked Public Safety’s instructional videos and presentations that are available on their website, however, no training or instruction is mandated. Public Safety delivers training to various schools and departments when requested on top of offering open sessions for faculty, staff, and students.

“We encourage all university constituents to be involved in their safety,” Chief of Public Safety Randy Burba said. “We do not force professors to speak to the issue we simply provide the training and encourage them to.  We also encourage students to take advantage of the training and the resources on our webpage.”

Zoellner sent the information to encourage his colleagues to bring up the same discussion in their classrooms; not only for safety reasons, but to make students think by reminding them that this is the America they live in.

“If having to go through this sort of thing makes students angry, they should be angry,” Zoellner said. “I’m angry as an educator that we have to go through this– that such ridiculous exercises as talking about being murdered in your own classroom is even plausible. I hope that Chapman students will think about ways to change public policy in whatever way they think appropriate.”

Though he is grateful that Chapman’s administration and Public Safety have protocol in place, Zoellner said he is angry that America is in a place where writing the email felt necessary.

“I am frustrated and angry that this conversation even has to take place,” Zoellner said. “The classroom should be a safe and secure place and no student or teacher should even have to talk about this, and the fact that we do is infuriating.”

His email sparked a discussion amongst Wilkinson faculty members and the Public Safety department about the best ways to handle the topic with students: whether professors should present safety procedures or if a conversation about mental illness and political activism would be more lucrative.

Discourse ensued. Some professors shared that they believe Public Safety should require training, drills, and a concrete plan, while some shared that they would prefer training to be optional. Associate Professor of Political Science Fred Smoller brought up political activism as the most effective way to take action.

“The time for talking is over,” Smoller wrote in his email. “Instead, consider having your classes look up how their member of Congress has voted on gun control, especially those from Orange County. Then, discuss why the NRA has such a strong hold on Congress. Students want action, not discussion– which serves to legitimize an intolerable ‘new normal.’”

Assistant Professor of Peace Studies Lisa Leitz said that she is hesitant to take up class time for training, but is in favor in increased student civics discussion and engagement.

“Mass shootings contribute to less than 0.0001% of deaths in the US, and although homicide is in the top causes of death for this age group, the vast majority are not of this type,” Leitz wrote in her email. “If we are to use class time to address public concerns of this type, we would be better off addressing the five leading causes of college student deaths: accidents, suicide, heart and circulatory diseases, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.”

Leitz also mentioned that there is conflicting evidence about these trainings’ effectiveness versus their fear mongering and feeding the security industry.

“Those are issues in need of discussion, especially when we don’t have money for public service members’ pensions or (mental) healthcare, but we do for more war-like training and equipment,” Leitz wrote. “To have a conversation about this issue should lead us to ask why we are the only country where colleges/universities would consider using class time for this, because those countries do not face the same gun threats. It would also mean discussing why these issues gain so much media traction and how different types of killers lead to differing reactions and terminology.”

Associate Professor of English Lynda Hall offered a different tactic: weaving discussions of senseless violence, mental health issues, and other relevant topics into curriculum to evoke discussion and apply current events to classroom topics.

“I’m a true believer that literature has stood the test of time has done that because it’s not about something that’s happened today, it’s something about human beings,” Hall said.

Because of this, she addresses topics like terrorism and mental illness in the context of literature– a teaching style she has been using through 30 years of tragedy, from the L.A. Riots to September 11.

“Today’s scheduled topics in three very different courses each deal with aspects of mental illness, violence against women and suicide—all from 19th century British and American writers, so the ubiquitous nature of these issues can be brought to the present,” Hall wrote in her email.  “I can mention briefly the video link and perhaps lead the students who are concerned and need more assurance to move in the right direction.”

Chapman students have mixed feelings about active shooter protocols and professors’ roles in those situations. Sophomore Creative Writing major Michelle Vera says she’d feel safer with prepared protocols in place, but is upset at the reality of that fact.

“It’s a shame that it’s come to the fact that I would feel safer if we had thorough protocols in place that we practiced, but I think the number one priority as a nation should still be to pass legislation to get more gun control so we don’t have to waste school time on protocols,” Vera said.

From emergency training to discussing political activism to working current events into class topics, Chapman’s professors are all trying to find their role within the issue of school shootings. Though no definitive answer or procedure has been determined, they will continue to navigate this nuanced discussion.


Brittany Toombs & Saranna Quach

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