It wasn't supposed to happen here
It has been a while since I have posted a blog post, but this seems the appropriate medium to talk about recent events. To get you caught up, in 2020, I returned to Michigan State University to be an academic specialist with a fixed-term contract. MSU has always held a special place in my heart. It's where I grew into the person that I am today. I was always a nerd when I was in high school, but I felt like I was a fish out of water there. Sure, I was supported, but I hadn't found like-minded people. When I got to MSU, I did. I was able to pursue zoology and grow. I was able to travel to Costa Rica and Panama and fell in love with tropical biology. It's made MSU special for me. In 2022, I was promoted to the continuing system as an academic specialist (more job security and more freedom with what I could do).
Lyman Briggs College is a unique place. It's a STEM college that highly values pedagogy. It also is a residential college, meaning that students live in the hall (Holmes) and go to class there as well. We have small classes and get to know our students. In a university intro bio course, there may be 300 students. Professors don't get to know their students. Students don't get to know their professors. In LBC, I have 48 students in a lecture and those same 48 split between two labs. I get to know my students. It makes teaching quite rewarding, and I get attached to my students. Virtually every semester, I fight back tears when I say goodbye to students to the end of the semester.
On February 13, 2023 at 8:32pm, I received a text that stated in essence "active shooter on campus, run, hide, fight." Admittedly, I was initially skeptical that it was actually shooter. It can't happen at Michigan State. It was a mistake and the police were being cautious to protect the student body from a possible threat. There was frustratingly little information about what was going on. I was at home, but I wanted to know where this was happening. MSU is one of the largest campuses in the US. It mattered where this was happening. A colleague of mine was on campus and locked himself in his office with two students. I was texting with him and another colleague to make sure he was okay. That's when information started coming through.
There were confirmed injuries and fatalities. This wasn't suppose to happen here. I started scouring news sites for information. Nothing. I found a link to the police scanner on Twitter. I started listening. Before I go into that, I think it is important to offer the perspective here.
In the US, we hear about school shootings all too commonly. By the time we hear about a shooting happening, it is in the final phases if not already done. Police have found and cornered the shooter. The shooter committed suicide. By the time it gets to the national media, we already know how many victims there are and we have moved right into the "how can we stop this from happening" phase. As the public, we do not experience the shooting in real time.
That changed for me. I was not on campus, so cannot speak to the situation there, but just my impressions for the moment. The police scanner was chaotic. Police were getting calls about suspects walking by the chemistry building with was looked to be a gun. They were getting calls about a shooting in IM East. Or McDonel Hall. Or Berkey Hall. Or Akers Hall. Or Hubbard Hall. If you don't know MSU's campus, this is meaningless. As I said, MSU's campus is massive. It would probably take me 15 minutes to walk from Berkey to the Chemistry Building or from the Chemistry Building to Hubbard Hall. There were reports all over. At the time, we still did not have any information of casualties. We did not even know how many shooters there were. Maybe one? Maybe three? It was, as I say, chaos.
At one point, there was a lot of concern in Akers Hall, which is across the street from Holmes Hall. At one point, one police officer said that he could smell gunpowder. Might be a gun, might be fireworks, but he could smell it. All I could think about were my students, hiding in their rooms, maybe peaking out the windows watching a police raid in the building across the street. What must that have been like? It's one thing if this is happening two miles away on the other side of campus. It's still scary, but it's out of sight. It's not supposed to happen here. Except it did. Across the street. As I listened to the scanner, I was just hoping never to hear about Holmes.
At that point, national news media had picked up the story and were covering it. This was probably two hours into the ordeal. I decided to turn off the scanner and watch the news media to help with my stress and with the realization that police were responding to every panicked call from students, and that made it difficult to track what was going on. The news media would help filter those details into what was known and not known.
At that point, we knew that there was one dead and several injured. At MSU. It wasn't supposed to happen here. The main focus seemed to be on north campus: Berkey Hall and the Student Union. At 11pm (2.5 hours after the initial text), police held a press conference to let the public know what was going on. One dead and five injured and transported to Sparrow Hospital. Still didn't know how many shooters there were, if it was a student or faculty, or where they were. They shortly after released a picture of the person.
There was more panic and chaos as it came clear that this person was still at large and police, seemingly, had no idea where he was. He could be holed up in one of the campus buildings. He could be holding students hostage. He could be on the run. We just didn't know anything. As time went by, it came clear to me that he was on the run. There was no information on additional casualties or any sign from him. Police were scheduled to give another press conference at midnight. Midnight came and went and no news. I was getting tired, but I would not be able to sleep until I saw this resolved. After all, I'm sure my students weren't sleeping. How could I? The delay in the press conference got me thinking that they found the suspect. My suspicions were confirmed when, at 12:32am, police held a news conference saying that they person matching the suspect's description was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. They believed he acted alone and the shelter-in-place order was lifted. They announced that there were three dead and five wounded and in critical condition.
I went to sleep and slept fitfully. The following days were a bit of a blur, if I'm being honest. I have shifted between crying at the thought of this happening on my beloved MSU to anger that this happened again. The eight victims were all students. Students! They came here to learn. They came to fall in love with MSU like I did. That was taken from them by someone who had no affiliation with the school. It was a random act of violence. The police named the students: Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser, and Alexandra Verner. The weight of this heinous act started settling on me. Campus was closed for the following two days and a candlelight vigil was held at the Rock. I could not go to it, but I watched online.
I was only tangentially involved in this. I will have to heal like all, and I will have to help my students heal. I am going through many of the common responses associated with traumatic experiences. I'm looking for blame. After this happened, the Rock was painted to say "How many more?" The day of the vigil, someone repainted it in the middle of the night to say "Let us defend ourselves and carry on campus." This sent me into a rage. Guns are the problem. Having more guns would not solve this. And this is one of the things I think is important to emphasize for people on the outside looking in. The police scanner at the time was chaotic. Students called in any suspicious person. More often than not, the suspicious people were police clearing buildings. If you added a bunch of guns in the hands of panicked young people, there would have been a great deal more deaths and injuries. This is the fallacy of a "good guy with a gun." Yes, the occasional bystander does stop a shooting, but more often than not, they are a hinderance to law enforcement because they have to assume anyone with a gun is a threat. I am glad that this message quickly got painted over.
I'm looking for blame. I know that. But I'm also tired of this happening. I got angry at Newtown. At Parkland. At Uvalde. And now it happened at MSU. It wasn't supposed to happen here. And this is different. To be on the inside of this experience, I understand a little better those people who have to deal with mass shootings and the after effects of them.
I also want to take a minute to call out the media. As this was happening, while we didn't know all of the details, I said that this would be in the news for two days, then by Wednesday, it would be gone. I was not too far off. I write this on Thursday. Most national media is not covering it anymore. My community is still broken. It is going to be broken for a long time. It is infuriating that it is a two day story and then move onto something else. Furthermore, they focused on the bad and not the good. They didn't cover the student who ripped their shirt off to staunch the blood of a victim. They didn't cover the thousands who showed up to the vigil. They didn't cover the vigils that happened at the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University, Central Michigan University, Grosse Point, Clawson High School, or the moments of silence at various athletic events around the nation. MSU was just one more statistic. Where is the coverage of the people?
They did not show the best of Michigan State University. I love this school because, despite having 50,000 students and 10,000 faculty/staff, across a 5200 acre campus, we are a close community. Parents were driving random students back home to their families. Businesses were offering spaces to heal. So many medical professionals showed up at local hospitals to treat the wounded that some were turned away. This is how I want to remember MSU.
I went to campus for the first time today, three days after this happened. It was eerie how quiet campus was. On a normal Thursday, students would be all over, parking lots would be full. Not today. I wanted to visit Sparty and the Rock and the buildings where it happened. I did, and I was overwhelmed. There were hundreds of flowers. There were random people standing and reflecting. The love, and strength, and resolve was overwhelming. We would not let this dark time define us. I cried.
It won't be the last time either. I have class on Tuesday. I initially was going to just do what we were supposed to do this week next week, but as the days went on, I realized that I am not going to be ready. I'm sure many of my students won't be either. We will have some sort of discussion. I have been reflecting on what I want to say. What I need to get off my chest. It is not fair that the student experience I had was robbed from my students. It is not fair that students so quickly and readily acquiesced to the "Run, Hide, Fight" mandate from the police because they were doing shooter drills most of their lives. It is not fair that campus will not feel safe for them anymore. I tell my students that I consider Briggs to be a family - which is why I get teary-eyed at saying goodbye to them. The thought that this happened to them and scarred them for life is almost too much to bear.
We're not a statistic. We are a community in pain. As the inevitable debate around school safety and guns rages after this, I implore people to think of those who actually were in it. Think of their fear. Their confusion. The lasting scars - both physical and emotional. The time for inaction is at an end. We have to change this. I don't wish this on anyone. Spartan Strong is a good reflection of this community, but strength isn't measured in how much you can lift, but how much you can bear. We're bearing a lot right now. We will get through it, but it is going to take time.
I am writing this mostly as part of my healing process. I'm very empathetic, so when I watched news of other shootings, I got emotional. But this is so much different. I hope I can convey that. I hope that people reading this can get a perspective "from the inside." After watching news of other shootings, it was easy for me to dissociate from it because it was happening in a different town or state. I could be empathetic, but it didn't impact me personally. I was always an advocate for gun reform, but this has given me a different perspective that I'm not sure I am articulate enough to express. It wasn't supposed to happen here.
I also do this for my students, for the students in the hospital, and for Arielle, Brian, and Alexandra. What else can I do other than share my story to help them?