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The psychology of a campus after a tragedy

Earlier this month, a shooting at an Aurora movie theater shocked the world and made Colorado citizens question their environment and surroundings.

The overall psychology of the public is often altered in situations like these, according to CSU psychology professor Jennifer Harman.


“It makes us question if we can identify people like this,” she said.

The reason for these events are often produced by a troubled individual as “a last ditch effort to express themselves or lash out,” she added.

The big question that is being asked is who’s responsible for not flagging this individual or how society could have.

“As a university we should be, if we’re an inclusive community, asking the same of our students, faculty and staff… what services are we providing?” Harman asked.

The university has a safety plan template that lists procedures for emergency situations and even mentions an armed person or shooter.

The plan outlines guidelines of how students and staff should respond to a threat.

An example of what should be done in the occurrence of a shooter in your classroom states that, “There is no set procedure in this situation. If possible, call 911 and talk with a police dispatcher. If you cannot speak, leave the phone line open so the police can hear what is going on.”

Students now are paying more attention to the precautions that are being taken by the university.

University chemistry professor Benjamin Reynolds, for example, said that on the general chemistry laboratory safety policies document there is a statement about what to do if a student comes into contact with an armed person.


“The safety policies document was written before the Aurora shooting and includes information for many possible emergency situations,” Reynolds said in an email to the Collegian.

“I was surprised to see something like that in the syllabus, because I’ve never seen something like it before,” said Anne Kalenits, sophomore human development and family studies major. “Whether I’m on or off campus, I don’t feel as safe as I used to. I feel like I always have to be extremely aware of my surroundings. It’s scary to think about.”

Harman calls this counterfactual thinking. There are two approaches –– either upward or downward thinking –– that make our world feel more controllable, Harman said .

“When an accident happens you think upwardly if you are only thinking ‘if only I had done that,’” said Harman. “Thinking downwardly is saying more ‘thank God I didn’t die.’”

Harman explained that downward thinkers are more motivated to change and are actively thinking of what could have been done.

“I would love to see a survey about how students feel…and how much people think about this,” said Harman.

Harman also encourages more emphasis on preventative care rather than treating or dealing with the consequences afterwards.

“It’s cheaper to treat earlier,” said Harman. “And there’s just no funding for mental services.”

Harman suggests that the university and greater community needs to rethink if you see someone in trouble, what other services are in place to help them.

“We need to engage more to how can we as a community identify these people,” Harman said.

She encourages reaching out to students who seem like loners or have social anxiety.

“Loneliness is very high in college students,” said Harman. “Prolonged loneliness can cause serious health and mental health concerns.”

As for what students can do now and consistently to promote a positive campus, Harman suggests that “students show kindness to each other and practice inclusiveness.”

Diversity Beat Reporter Bailey Constas can be reached at

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