A recent act of violence by a student at my undergraduate alma mater, Morgan State University, in which he allegedly murdered and dismembered a graduate student, and then consumed some of his victim’s organs, raises serious red flags concerning precautions taken when a student exhibits irrational behavior. While the details of this heinous act are still not fully known, what has surfaced is the strange and bizarre behavior of the alleged killer; a student that had been tossed out of the campus ROTC, had a couple of violent episodes in the past, made unintelligible statements at a campus forum and posted troubling rants on his Facebook page. Moreover, some of his fellow students have stated that he was known to carry a machete on campus. It has also been reported that a campus official deemed the young man a “Virginia Tech” massacre waiting to happen.
All of this “history” was a warning of a potentially dangerous eruption by this young man on a state university campus. Luckily for the campus body, and unluckily for the victim, this student apparently claimed only one life and not the scores he could have injured or killed. As an alumnus of Morgan State University I am relieved that the worst did not happen but concerned that the worst could have happened. Beyond my obviously selfish self-interest in preserving the reputation of a fine institution of higher learning and a historically Black college that has had a tremendous imprint on America, there is an obvious need for a thorough and independent examination of all of the facts related to this student’s enrollment and past violent episodes, and the university’s handling of his matriculation.
Morgan State University is not alone in its seeming unpreparedness in handling students that might have mental health issues. Tragically, campuses often miss the warning signs until it is too late; leaving the public to ponder how an unbalanced student was allowed to continue enrollment without proper care and the carnage that resulted from that omission. In many ways my alma mater dodged a bullet, no pun intended. This could have been much worse. There is a need for college campuses to take aggressive measures to make sure a full range of mental health services are available on campus and have qualified staff on campus to aid students. The quite normal stresses of campus life and young adulthood make college years some of the most difficult with which to contend. Add mental health issues and the strain can be unbearable and result in a host of behaviors that are self-damaging and endanger the welfare of the campus community.
In many ways, there is a particularly troubling aspect of this incident as it relates to the African-American community. While we will readily admit to doing “crazy” we are prone to avoiding contact with mental health professionals; partly attributable to our cultural armor that we have all worn to protect us in a society that too often looks for any reason to cast us aside. The stigma of mental illness in our community and the failure to seek help, and the reluctance of those around us to encourage our seeking help, has left us with many human time bombs in our community, ticking as they walk among us, and leaving all of us vulnerable to a random act of violence. Be clear, I am not suggesting that mental health issues are unique to the African-American community. In fact, my graduate school alma mater, New York University, has had an unfortunate series of student suicides in the past. My concern is that our failure to acknowledge sickness and provide assistance puts our community at risk. The truth is that our nation does not handle the issue of mental illness adequately nor devote the resources to promote wellness and recovery.
As the administration of Morgan State University grapples with this tragedy; an act that did not occur on its campus but nonetheless in the Morgan “family,” the university can take a leadership role in developing a protocol to deal with a range of mental health and behavioral issues. This episode should be a turning point and a true opportunity to learn by example. The “freedom” of a college campus is one of the most unique aspects of the university experience, and every effort must be taken to preserve a sense of security for students, faculty, administrators, staff and the extended community. We must find ways to support students who need help and remove the stigma associated with mental illness.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.