'This is my nightmare': UCLA shooting rattles educators across the country

UCLA gunman's cross-country plan to kill three people
UCLA gunman's cross-country plan to kill three people

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UCLA gunman's cross-country plan to kill three people 03:05

(CNN)University of Iowa instructor Christina Cooke used to worry about getting a bad review or a complaint to the department head if she had a problematic student.

Now, in the wake of the latest deadly American campus shooting, she worries that a student might walk into her office and kill her.
"I thought about who I had to discipline in my own courses, students I had to ask to leave altogether because of various behavioral issues and how terribly wrong that could have gone," said Cooke, who just completed two years as a teacher's assistant at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
    She was not the only educator for whom the story of a murder-suicide at UCLA hit close to home. With concealed carry legal in most states and some passing laws legalizing campus carry, many educators worry this could become the new normal.

    'I find this terrifying'

    Police say Mainak Sarkar stormed into one-time adviser William S. Klug's office on the California campus Wednesday, shooting him dead and putting the campus on lockdown for hours. Initial reports indicated a dispute over a grade might have motivated the gunman. Law enforcement later said it was an argument over intellectual property, but that did little to ease professors' concerns.
    "As someone with plans of becoming a professor, I find this terrifying," Cooke said on Twitter. She starts a one-year teaching position at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in August.
    Such is the new normal, they said: Worrying about how far students will take their beefs with faculty.
    "This is my nightmare," Bethany Albertson wrote on Twitter.
    The assistant professor at University of Texas at Austin wrote that she'd been concerned about violence from students in the past.
    "I've gotten feedback from students that makes me queasy, & one semester had to tell my husband, if anything happens to me, here's the name."

    'A meltdown of epic proportions'

    Given the end-of-year timing, Southern Methodist University professor Maria A. Dixon said a grade dispute or a dissertation disagreement were the first things that came to mind when she heard the news.
    The ongoing spate of school shootings has made safety top of mind for her on campus, she said. She takes her phone to class and is never far from the door. She becomes "more concerned" about office hours after grades come out, especially near graduation.
    Her concern stems from the mental health and well-being of college students as they face mounting pressures to succeed.
    "There is an implicit gauntlet of success that they seem to be running from the time they are born," she said. Get into the best preschool, best elementary, best prep school, do the right activities to get into the best college.
    "They are no longer kids, they are walking resumes. As a consequence, they have a skewed view of success and failure. Failure is almost intolerable and resilience is lacking. The standard is an A and nothing less."
    Grade inflation plays a significant role, she said, as students earn high marks for work that barely meets standards.
    "Our ability to truly access their work is gone. They have no concept of satisfactory -- they only know a type of fake excellence. So when professors either hold the line of rigor or fail to provide what the student believes is appropriate support, we are in danger of a meltdown of epic proportions."
    George Washington University associate professor Lorena A. Barba agreed that it's normal for students to feel pressure, especially in science and engineering, the fields Sarkar and Klug were in. She worries that incidents like this one could inspire more.
    "They deal with intense work periods, deadlines and exams, and the conflict between social life and studies. The concern is that more students experiencing a breakdown may contemplate the dramatic shooting, influenced by the increased frequency and attention on these events."

    Solutions?

    Taking self-defense classes put Barba at ease. Such an approach might help defuse shootings, she said.
    "The ideas of hitting a weak target in an attacker or swarming a shooter are distasteful, and you never want to use that knowledge, but it can save your life one day."
    Gun-free campuses would make Dixon more comfortable, but that's only part of the solution, she said. More campus resources for responding to mental health needs and concerns of students and staff displaying warning signs could engage the campus community in a solution.
    "As professors, we must remain concerned with the whole being of our students -- not just their class performance but their reactions to grades, critique and pressure. Campuses must have rapid response protocols for mental health needs of their students and professors must be partners with their student affairs professionals to ensure the health and safety of the campus and its students.
    She also suggested it may be time to look at mental health history as part of the admissions process -- "not to stigmatize but to understand and support those students who need greater attention and resources," she said.
    Cooke, the University of Iowa instructor, agreed that gun control is a concern but isn't so sure of the answer. She hopes that maintaining good relationships with students, even those who struggle in her class, will head off some of the strife.
    "I didn't become an instructor to fail people so I always give students a chance to respond and work with me."
    If that doesn't work, she worries about being in a conceal-carry state might mean for her.
    "Part of why I publicly spoke out is to make clear that this is an issue that needs to be addressed beyond this one incident, so this workplace stress can be alleviated and we can get back to the good work of educating students."