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A simple plan

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The undergraduate who had been writing poems about killing people showed up for his appointment in my office carrying a black canvas backpack. He was slim and dark-haired, his mouth torqued into an uneasy smile. I had spoken several times about his violent ramblings to the campus police and to the university’s office of mental health, and this was what they came up with: I should invite the student to my office and calmly begin a conversation with the following question: “Do you have a plan to harm yourself or anyone else?”

They didn’t specify a course of action if the answer was yes.

My office is small and square, with glass on three sides; an oversize desk takes up most of the floor space. I seated the undergrad and his backpack in the corner, leaving the door ajar so he was partly behind it. In the open doorway, I seated the student’s graduate teaching instructor — a shy, soft-spoken young woman working on her master of fine arts in poetry. It was she who had reported to me, her faculty supervisor, that despite clear and repeated instructions, the undergrad was writing things that had nothing to do with class assignments — things that made the other students afraid.

She was to accompany me in the subtle art of interrogation, and the two of us had made an agreement: At any sign of a problem, she was to sprint out of the office, assuming that I would be immediately behind her. In order to follow us, the student would have to squeeze somewhat awkwardly between my desk and the propped-open door. . .

I realized I was avoiding a return to The Question. Perhaps stalling for time, I asked about hobbies. What did the student do when he wasn’t studying? Did he have an outlet for relieving stress, maybe something outdoors? Yes, he said, the backpack slouched against his leg like a faithful dog — guns. He’d been taking lessons at a shooting range.

This doesn’t seem like the sort of intervention that should be outsourced (insourced?) by a university’s ever-expanding administration to the school’s faculty, although it doesn’t surprise me that it was.

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