Decision-making grows more complicated in a violent, unreasonable world

Imagine, for a moment, being a faculty member at a small residential college away from the big city. One Sunday morning, you wake up to an alarming email saying that, in a note found in the city, your campus was named as one of four targets for a school shooting that morning. Another message follows later in the day: The police concluded that the credibility of the note was low. The campus will open as usual the next morning with an increased number of security officers on duty.

Here’s the question: Will you trust the judgment of the university officials and meet with your classes the next day?

Just a few years ago, my answer would have been an unequivocal yes; two weeks ago, when this scenario became reality, my reaction was entirely different.

I read the emails from the university several times, trying to catch every bit of nuance from the vague descriptions provided. Then, I went online to see if I could find what other institutions were named in the note, or any other details to shed light on the nature of this threat. Finally, I consulted with an acquaintance with expertise in personal security, to see how he would respond to a situation such as this. In the end, I reached a different conclusion than the university’s and moved all my classes online for the next two days.

I could see the reasoning behind the institutional decision to keep the campus open. The said “note” was found in a public location, where anyone could leave it as a prank. The Los Angeles Police Department analyzed it and concluded that it did not meet the criteria for credible threats. The time on the note, Sunday at 6 a.m., was an unlikely one for a school shooting, and it had passed without incident already. The increased alertness of the campus security and the local police department would certainly seem to be a reasonable response to what was most likely a false alarm.

The problem is, we don’t live in a reasonable world anymore. For one thing, mass shootings have become a real concern in the United States, and many educational institutions, from elementary schools all the way up to university campuses, have been the site of deadly violence many times over. If some prankster was trying to get attention, why choose a small lesser-known college instead of a bigger, more visible target, like one of the University of California campuses nearby? I also found out that two of the other three universities mentioned in the note were similar private institutions in the region, which made the list seem not so random. Is there someone out there with a grudge against private institutions, often seen as expensive and elitist?

The surroundings of our university have also changed dramatically in recent years. It used to be a lively campus with 2,000 or so residential students, who bumped against each other in the hallways as they rushed to packed classrooms and fought for a table in the popular study area next to the campus coffee shop. Now, all these public spaces on campus are half empty. After the year of online teaching and learning, students returned to campus, but not in the same way. Now, they seem to spend most of their time in their private rooms with small groups of known friends, rather than being out and about in public spaces.

At the same time, we have seen an increase in disturbing incidents on and around the campus: students accosted and assaulted by a group of youths driving by; female students followed and harassed by strange individuals at night. Every time we hear of these incidents, it erodes our sense of security and safety around campus. Everyone is driven into their private rooms and behind locked doors, and the campus seems strangely empty and quiet. My building becomes almost completely deserted at 4 p.m., and I leave campus as soon as my last class or meeting ends, no longer feeling safe to linger in my own office.

The final straw was the advice from the security-expert friend, who told me to weigh between the cost and benefit of being in the classroom. There is a lot of anger and frustration in our society right now, and there are people who are unable to find any other outlet than inflicting violence against innocent others. It was the last week of classes and I really wanted to meet with my students one last time to conclude the semester on a more positive note — but could I afford to take a chance of bringing serious harm to my students and myself? Put in this way, my choice was clear.

I learned a few things in the few days following the discovery of the threatening note. Two other institutions that were also named in the threat closed their campuses and told their students to stay home. None of my students complained about meeting online; some of my colleagues, who held their classes in person, told me that they received emails from concerned students who asked to attend classes online. A minor yet disturbing incident occurred, in which a small group of teenagers ran through a campus building shouting, “We have a gun.” A student who was in the building at the time said no one came to check on them.

Campus security later reported that they did not find any cause for concern.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.