The two Student Affairs ladies were there, along with two new faces and one we’d seen before. The familiar one was the chief inspector of the Houston Police Department. Then there was a UT Criminal Threat Division Inspector and the Seargant of the UT Threat Management Unit: Special Operations.
“We’d like to tell you the whole story,” they said. “Shall we begin?”
Over the course of the next hour, the team filled in all the missing puzzle pieces. The day the police came to campus to get our identification information, we told them T had been missing from school. Upon post-mortem investigation, it was discovered that that day he went to Bass Pro Shop and purchased a hand gun and 75 rounds of ammunition.
Once we made them aware that T had not been at school at all the week prior, they intercepted his cell phone signal and began tracking it. He went home to visit his family, where (per his family's report) he was in good spirits. He left his room at home spotless. He then drove back to Houston to his apartment and cleaned his room there as well. Then, he made the 800 mile trek to Lubbock, Texas--the home of Texas Tech University.
T graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in criminal justice. As a student there, six accounts of harrassment had been filed against him. Counselling services and police units had spent time with and interviewed him while he attended Tech, and it was known that he had social issues. He had suffered a lifetime of undiagnosed mental illness, and his strangeness set him apart from his peers. Jokingly, they referred to him as “Cho” (the name of the Virginia Tech shooter). He would spend time in the library, piggybacking onto student accounts that were left opened and logged in. From those servers, T sent threatening and fear-oriented messages to fellow students. If they thought he was like Cho well, then, he was intent on actualizing their projections.
One professor in particular noticed his behaviors. She was the first person to ever refer him to behavioral health services, and for that act, he hated her. For a while, he tried to fit into a church group. However, with his “strange Jesus-talk,” (which I also experienced from him) they quickly realized he did not share their Christian faith, and he made them uncomfortable. He felt they excluded him, so he built resentment toward them.
My friends and I had known of T’s attendance at Texas Tech and of his graduation with a criminal justice degree, because we had searched the Texas Tech alumni records when we first began to feel uneasy about his stories and behaviors.
He arrived to UT with a clean slate--people here did not know him and were not connected to his past record at Texas Tech.
That day they tracked his phone, he drove the 800 miles to Lubbock. He then spent a number of hours circling the campus in his van. Then, T drove to the neighborhood where he remembered the female professor having lived while he was a student. He circled her neighborhood, looking for her, intent on harm. As fate would have it, the professor had moved from that neighborhood just a couple months before T arrived there to settle his score. Because the UT police had an idea of his intent, Texas Tech police were alerted and went on Code 5 alert to find the female professor and keep her out of harm’s way.
Being unsucessful in his search, T then made his way to the church where his old church group used to gather. He spent some time circling the area to see if any of them were around before parking in the lot, where he killed himself in his van.
The investigators on the case spent months putting these pieces of the puzzle together. “We were all too late for T,” they said. “We did not have enough information soon enough to help him--the important information has only been discovered retroactively. But we were NOT TOO LATE for that professor, or the church friends, or for the Texas Tech campus at large. In our professional opinion, after painstakingly piecing all the evidence together, we are convinced that T was intent on harming a number of individuals.”
“I need to tell you three an analogy,” the sargeant said. “There was once a study done that showed that if enough dominoes are lined up and a 2,000 pound brick wall is placed at the end, the domino train will knock over the brick wall. All you have to do is flick the first one, and everything falls into place. If a single domino is removed from anywhere in the train, the whole thing is foiled and the wall will never fall. You guys removed a single domino. All we needed was for you to do was that one piece--and then the team came in and took on the rest. BUT FIRST, SOMEONE HAD TO SAY SOMETHING. We were not able to stop T’s death--but we were able to stop that brick wall; we were able to stop a shooting. We want to thank you for your courage; for your persistence. We want you to know that you will never know the far-reaches of your action. We will never know how many lives you saved, but we are convinced you saved very, very many. T was a match looking for somewhere to light his fire.”
“Why did he go there--and not come...here?” we asked
“He didn’t come here because the people here were kind and compassionate toward him. He knew you guys wanted to help him, and he had nothing against you. However, T was soon to receive confirmation of his failing grades here. We believe that upon receiving those grades, he would have been angry toward the professors here as well, as that was his established pattern of behavior and thought. We cannot say what might have happened had he been allowed to continue ticking--had you not intervened--had you “sat back and left him alone."
We asked them about the professors, here--why didn’t they notice? Why did they not take us seriously?
“The professors don’t see what you guys see. They see a stressful school environment, with stressful exams, and they see students acting all sorts of strange ways due to being under stress. YOU, as students, have a massively significant different view on things. You have been in high stress, high performance environments nonstop for the past four years or more. You know what normal handling of stress looks like. You are, therefore, highly attuned to abnormal coping and abnormal manifestations of stress. Professors only see so much--YOU SEE SO MUCH MORE. You are in the very best spot to take action in a situation like this.”
We told the chief investigator that really, all we did was ask intentional questions and make observations for some time. We spoke to our classmates to see if they had similar experiences--to make sure we weren’t off base. Then, when we felt we had gathered sufficient evidence to make a case, we took action. When we felt the action wasn’t sufficient, we kept going up the chain of command until someone took our concern seriously.
“We call those silos,” he said. “Let’s take a mental health case, for example. Someone may check into a hospital here in Houston and exhibit certain symptoms. A year later, they may check into a clinic in the Woodlands and exhibit the same symptoms. Still later, they may exhibit those symptoms in an ER. As isolated incidences, none of those symptoms are cause for concern. But if the providers at each of those three locations got together and talked, they’d be able to see the pattern--and they’d quickly realize the scope of the patient’s problem. They would intervene much differently if they knew their individual cases were not isolated but instead singular cases within a much greater narrative. What you three did was take your silo and merge it with other silos. By doing that, you put the puzzle pieces together. Thank you.”
In the midst of this tragedy, there are some lessons to be learned:
First, IF SOMETHING FEELS OFF, PURSUE IT UNTIL YOU CAN PURSUE IT NO LONGER. It is your job, always your job to get the ball rolling if something in *your gut* doesn’t feel right.
Second, if someone is “rocking a boat,” let them rock it for a while before you try to drown them in your criticisms and cutting remarks. Rocking a boat takes courage and stamina, and if you weren’t there in the initial stages of the rocking, then press the pause button on your comments and ask some questions, first. Come to understand the situation, in its entirety, before trying to drown the rockers.
Third, when you take action, follow through until that action reaches its natural conclusion. If answers from people in the lower-rungs are unsatisfactory, MOVE UP THE RUNGS. You are not too lowly to make a phone call to a dean, to student affairs, to a president. Bypass the committees and the meaningless chains of command if they're being ineffective. Go to someone who can actually help you.
Fourth, QUIT WITH THE BEING AFRAID TO OFFEND PEOPLE. In many cases where something important needs to be done, people are going to get offened. Had we been more worried about offending T than saving his life and the lives of others, more people would be dead right now. We were concerned with the highest orders of things--LIFE. Action needed to be taken, and quickly, and time spent skirting around political correctness and "but maybe everyone's just unique and different"-ness was time we didn't have.
Fifth, NORMAL PEOPLE (like you and me) have the power to stop massive acts of violence. But we have to be willing to open our mouths and speak. We cannot let our fear of “saying something” stop us from saying it. Do you realize I sat in that conference room today for an hour, and for forty whole minutes my legs shook like wet noodles and the lump in my throat was so big I couldn’t speak? That was my physical state at EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE MEETINGS WE HAD WITH PEOPLE THROUGH THIS WHOLE PROCESS FOR THE PAST NINE MONTHS. I shook like a leaf and cried. A lot. My friends were stronger than I, but they shook too. Thing is--we kept walking and talking as we shook. Becuase we felt, really deep down, that what we were doing was right. I think doing the right thing feels that way a lot of the time.
When we were in the room today, and I was finally able to speak, I said this:
“This meeting has been wonderful. Thank you for bringing us in here and taking time out of your day to complete the puzzle for us. However, it isn’t enough. Having only eight of us in this room perpetuates the secretive nature of all this--and all cases like this--and makes it so that eight of us are holding a key we shouldn’t be holding alone. This key needs to be given to the 500 students outside these doors--and to the millions of people in the rest of this country. This class, and this nation, needs to know the truth about these sorts of things. They need to know that, every single day, catastrophes are BEING THWARTED. They need to know there are special operations teams all over the place tracing these patterns and catching leads and trying to keep us safe. And, most importantly, they need to know that THEY HAVE THE ABILITY TO REMOVE THE FIRST DOMINO."
If something feels off, it probably is. And we 100% have the power and authority to do something about it. And if it feels off and ends up not being off, then whatever. If even ONE TIME you are right, it’s worth all the other times you said something and had it wrong. When contemplating whether or not we were going to say something about T, my partner and I often looked at each other and said: "but if we don't say something, and something bad happens, we'll be just like the people they interview after the school shootings--the people who say 'yeah, I always knew something wasn't quite right with (the shooter).' And if we say something and we're wrong--maybe he's just depressed and never intended to hurt anyone--then at least he'll know someone noticed him and cared. And if nothing's wrong at all, well then good. Really, the only way to lose here is to stay silent."
I want T to know that his life was not in vain. The chief investigators changed parts of their protocol because of him. His story taught them better ways to handle subsequent situations of this sort. The faculty learned some things. The administration learned that it takes students a lot of courage and determination to make a point to meet with them--so if we do that, we're probably pretty serious, and they should listen. They did listen this time, and they're going to do even more listening in the future.
The night of T’s funeral, I brought his program home, wrote some notes on it, and glued it into my journal.
“I will never forget that you were broken...and we noticed. I’m sorry we were scared of you at first and that it took us being scared to piece together the rest of the puzzle. We never intended harm, sweet T. We only wanted you to get help...and we wanted our classmates and us to be safe.”
Well, now we know. Lives were saved. Period and Amen.
May we continue to be given strength, by God and each other, to use our voices when they most need to be used.
Our vocal chords and our love are the most powerful tools we have.
Our campuses, churches, workplaces, and the world are depending on us to use our voices to save our people. We are, after all, each other's superheroes.