Why was it so hard to kick Loughner out of Pima Community College?

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Jan. 10 2011 7:49 PM

Class Clown

Why was it so hard to kick Loughner out of Pima Community College?

See Slate's complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Jared Lee Loughner stands accused of being many things worse than a disruptive classroom presence. The 22-year-old is charged with killing six people in Tucson, Ariz.—including Judge John Roll of the U.S. District Court—and of wounding more than a dozen others, including the gravely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who appears to have been Loughner's chief target. But before he was an accused killer, Loughner was for five years a student at Pima Community College. Throughout his fifth year, if not before, Loughner appears to have created an impressive amount of mayhem, until Sept. 29, when the college finally issued a letter of suspension, prompting Loughner's voluntary withdrawal on Oct. 4. What does a kid have to do these days to get kicked out of community college?

According to a Jan. 8 statement from the college, Loughner "had five contacts with PCC police for classroom and library disruptions" over a seven-month period in 2010. Five contacts with campus police for disruptive behavior strikes me as at least three too many before you suspend a student from community college. Five should warrant not a suspension, but an expulsion. This is college, after all, not high school, where disruptive children under 16 pose unique administrative challenges because the law requires them to attend some school, somewhere. Loughner was a legal adult during virtually his entire time at Pima. Even during the few months in the summer of 2005 when he attended prior to his 18th birthday, he bore no legal schooling requirement. He was free to leave, and Pima, at least in theory, was free to chuck him. But Pima didn't chuck him—not until Loughner posted to YouTube an incoherent broadside that said Pima was unconstitutional, fraudulent, and "a scam;" its students and teachers "illiterate;" and all other American colleges similarly illegitimate. For some reason, that flimsy straw broke the camel's back.

Loughner wasn't just inexplicably difficult to remove from Pima; he was even more inexplicably difficult to remove from Ben McGahee's algebra class at Pima. McGahee told the Washington Post that he had to complain repeatedly to Pima administrators about Loughner's disruptions before they let him kick Loughner out of the class. On the first day, McGahee said, Loughner yelled "How can you deny math instead of accepting it?" That same day a student in the class complained about Loughner in an e-mail to a friend: "I'm not certain yet if he was on drugs (as one person surmised) or disturbed. He scares me a bit. The teacher tried to throw him out and he refused to go." Nine days later this student wrote in an e-mail: "Until he does something bad, you can't do anything about him. Needless to say, I sit by the door." Four days later the student wrote that Loughner "scares the living crap out of me." It was three or four weeks before McGahee was permitted to remove Loughner from class. McGahee told the Post that when he first complained, "They just said, 'Well, he hasn't taken any action to hurt anyone. He hasn't provoked anybody. He hasn't brought any weapons to class.' " Meanwhile, McGahee said that whenever he turned "to write on the board, I would always turn back quickly—to see if he had a gun."

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Pima's Student Code of Conduct says that a student shall not "Disrupt any educational activity or process including, but not limited to, interrupting, impeding, or causing the interruption or impediment of any class, lab, administrative activity, or College event." Nor shall he "Disturb the peace of the College by, among other things, fighting, causing excessive noise, or engaging in indecent or obscene behavior." Loughner was guilty of all of these except fighting. (In a poetry class, one fellow student reports, he repeatedly grabbed his crotch while reading a poem.) But to remove a student for nonviolent disruption at Pima entails a due-process gauntlet: the filing of an incident report; the logging of the incident report; consultation with the college's equal-employment-opportunity office (not relevant if the scofflaw is a disaffected white male, though possibly so if that disaffected white male's misbehavior is "the result of a disability"—does mental disability count?); notice to the student behavior assessment committee; and then an elaborate review process that involves at least one "phase," and possibly two.

There is an alternative path, "immediate suspension," but for that you either have to demonstrate that the student represents "an unreasonable risk of danger to himself/herself or others," or that the student's "presence on College property poses a significant risk of disruption of educational activities," which sounds more global than persistently interrupting one class at a time. The "risk of danger to himself/herself or others" standard is the one that counts here, and while in hindsight it's clear that Loughner posed such a risk, it would have been difficult to demonstrate that at the time. To do so, Loughner would have to have committed an act of violence or threatened to do so. That's a legitimate standard. What's harder to understand is why the fast track to suspension was available only to aspiring Dylan Klebolds. What about students who persistently disrupt classes but are simply jerks—or nonviolent nutcases?

A phone call I placed to Pima's public affairs office about this went unanswered. But I would guess the answer lies partly in the general anxiety within community colleges about graduation rates. About half of all community-college students nationwide drop out before the two years it takes to earn an associate's degree and only 25 percent achieve that degree in three years. At Pima, the graduation rate is 28 percent. If you're a community college administrator, you spend all day worrying about your attrition rate, not about the speed with which you can remove students who are making it difficult for other students to learn. Indifference to disrupters who are nonviolent (or perceived as such) is surely a much more everyday problem at community colleges than the presence of mentally ill students who plot murder. Loughner just happened to fit both categories.

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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