"Only the Paranoid Survive"
“Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” – Andy Grove
Unfortunately, school shootings happen. They used to be something that happened over there to those people. Now, they happen more and more frequently and have become such that no school is necessarily exempt. Appalachian School of Law was a tiny little law school in the middle of nowhere in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia. There were fewer than 200 students and 20 full-time staff. The likelihood that this school would be the victim of an active shooter was slim to none. Yet, it happened. People knew this student had mental issues, that he had reason to be upset, and that he was somewhat unstable, but they got complacent. There was no preparation, no thought that this could happen here. I say this not to scare, but to warn. Complacency is the enemy of progress, of success, of survival. To become complacent means that we are no longer growing, learning, developing, and maintaining awareness of our world. To become complacent means that we are perfectly content to stay where we are forever. But, here’s the thing about complacency: it doesn’t last. The world we live in does not like complacency. Being complacent only lasts until something or someone comes along to jolt us out of our comfortable numbness. Unfortunately, in this case, the jolt came in the form of an active shooter.
What struck me as I was reading this case was that so many people knew what was coming. They may not have known the details, but they felt in their gut that something was coming, and that it would come from this particular student. You see, this student was already in need of psychological help. His fellow students had noticed his “abrasive” behavior in class and that when he wasn’t being abrasive, he was subdued and reserved. He was not forming human connections. And, on top of that, he was severely struggling academically. He had already been suspended from the school before for failing grades. Now, he was threatened with full expulsion. These elements combined to form the perfect storm. The coroner even stated that “he was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.”
The shooter walked onto campus around 1:15 pm on January 16, 2002, armed with a handgun. He shot his dean first. L. Anthony Sutin, a graduate of Harvard Law School had been a member of the Clinton administration. Then he shot a professor, Dr. Thomas Blackwell, a graduate of Duke University School of Law. What I found even more tragic was the death of student Angela Dales. She had worked at law schools for years and had finally achieved her dream of being a law student when she was tragically killed by a fellow student. The shooter wounded three others. The true heroes in this story are not the active police, but fellow law students with police backgrounds. They ran toward the trouble instead of away from it and tackled the shooter before he could hurt anyone else. However, these are not the people that make the news.
I have a couple of takeaways from this shooting. First, never, ever, ever get complacent. Complacency is the enemy of survival. Schools and individuals should always be looking to improve their awareness of and preparation for active shooter events. The signs were there for the shooter. People knew it was coming. They just didn’t do anything about it until it was too late.
Second, be the responder. Be the one who is prepared for such an event- not paranoid, just prepared- so that someone has a clear head in the impending chaos.
Third, do something. I have studied several active shooter cases in which mentally unstable people have been able to purchase handguns, or people knew something was wrong and they knew who the perpetrator would be, but they did not call the police. In this case, both happened. People knew this student was unstable and that something was coming, but there was no indication of efforts to get a restraining order or even police backup. We need to learn from this case and act accordingly.
What can you do? Be the advocate for the changes you want to see in your school district, university, or business. Take an active shooter response training. Encourage your schools and businesses to be prepared for an active shooter event. Be aware of past active shooter cases, and learn from them. Know the people around you, and do not be afraid to be the one who steps up and demands change. Active shooter situations are not far away and happening to other people anymore. They are here and now, and “only the paranoid survive.”