After the tragic Oxford High School shooting on Nov. 30, schools across the state — including the high school I graduated from that my sister currently attends — temporarily closed. While the University of Michigan’s Oct. 2 shooting threat did not result in direct violence, it warranted a similar option for students.
In the wake of the shooting threat posted on a Russian confessions website discovered on Oct. 2, the University chose to continue Monday, Oct. 4, as a normal day instead of canceling classes. Although this choice was not without the University’s thoughtful consideration, many, including myself, felt that the gravity of the situation justified an option to stay home from school on Oct. 4. With no right answer, I respect the University’s decision but remain dissatisfied with the lack of flexibility for students who may have wished to stay home to recoup or remain on the safe side to protect their peace of mind, after such a distressing experience.
The University, in coordination with U-M Division of Public Safety and Security and the FBI, determined that no harm would come to campus from the individual who created the threat.
As a young female student, a target of this man’s rage, anxiety quickly set in as I read the DPSS’ first statement regarding the threat. I was dissatisfied with the information it provided and immediately considered calling the school to ask what the threat would mean for class attendance. For the first few hours after DPSS’s first announcement, I weighed the risk of violence against the disruption of my studies.
Despite my confusion, I later learned that the University had strategic and considerate reasons for not calling off classes immediately after discovering the social media threat. I spoke with University spokespeople Rick Fitzgerald and Kim Broekhuizen in order to understand the University’s reasoning. Fitzgerald explained that the University believed it to be in students’ best interest to continue classes on Oct. 4:
“The input from our campus community — from our experts, from the university leaders — was that going about having classes and going about a more ‘normal’ Monday routine was actually good for our community; that it would be a better situation to go to class, to go to work — that that was a more effective way of addressing what turned out to be not a real threat than to take the day off and perhaps have the day to focus on that situation.”
Fitzgerald also assured me that the FBI and DPSS “very quickly and effectively addressed” the threat. Broekhuizen emphasized that the University takes security threats like this on a case-by-case basis, rather than simply deferring to a standard protocol:
“No two threats are ever going to be the same, and so yes, there is a checklist, for lack of a better word, that we could go through and that we do go through… but every situation is so unique that we take best practices, best lessons learned, and then we look at that current situation.”
These insights made me feel safer and more confident in the University’s choice. I wish that such remarks were publicly available at the time that DPSS announced our safety.
I appreciate the University’s handling of the social media threat and its partnership with the FBI in quickly extinguishing the threat. At the same time, due to the distressing nature of the event, students should have been guaranteed the option to stay home that day with no penalty to their schoolwork.
When the threat of danger presents itself, students deserve to be spared the mental anguish of weighing the risk of going to classes, missing information due to panic and stress and coordinating with teachers who all have very different levels of accommodation. Threats of violence should be handled not only as a security crisis but as a mental health crisis. The lasting fear, anger and paranoia that it instilled in female students, including myself, warranted an option for staying home on Oct. 4 despite the University’s faith in maintaining normalcy on that day.
Taken as a singular event, the confessions site threat was determined to be low-risk within a few hours of it reaching the public eye. I trust that investigators made their best judgment in deeming the perpetrator a non-threat, but I do not trust the country we live in. This threat did not occur in isolation, but against the backdrop of a culture of mass shootings and violence against women. This has amplified students’ sensitivity toward it — not to mention the handful of sexual attacks on campus in recent months. This is why it is difficult for students such as myself to separate low-risk situations from high anxiety responses.
The personal dimension of this experience struck me the most. I learned that it’s hard to take any threat lightly, debunked or not, when you are the target. Paranoia still follows me as I walk the streets of campus in the evenings. I whip around when I hear the footsteps of male runners, I wear a hooded sweatshirt to conceal as much of my femininity as possible, and I brandish my roommate’s personal defense weapons even on a five-minute walk to the CVS on State Street. I felt intense frustration when a male friend of mine encouraged me to come to a party the Saturday night that the threat was made, saying, “you’re not going to get shot.” I was angry that he was in a position to have confidence in that conclusion and expected me to be as well. I was again shocked when one of my male professors held a reading quiz on Oct. 4 that could have been easily rescheduled. I expected professors to be aware and fully accommodating of the fact that many women would not be attending class out of fear or out of protest, and I was disappointed and angry with their lack of empathy.
The impact of the shooting threat did not end when DPSS confirmed our safety. It will continue to be a mark on our college experience that sends a message that we are not safe. Out of respect for the thousands of University of Michigan women and femme-presenting people who were victimized by a violent social media threat, making it as easy as possible to stay home should have been a higher priority.
The Oxford High School shooting is a horrifying reminder that fears can become reality. In the interest of students’ emotional security, we have to give them the option to stay home when violent threats present themselves, no matter their risk.
Alexis Hancz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.