College-aged Americans—most of whom were born in the late ’90s—don’t remember a time when school gun violence wasn’t a widely feared threat to young people. Their lives have been repeatedly punctuated by deadly mass shootings in schools: Though few remember Columbine, most remember Virginia Tech, Newtown, Parkland, and Santa Fe, among others. When a gunman at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, killed 12 people Wednesday night, one of the victims was Alaina Housley, a freshman at nearby Pepperdine University. Several survivors were also Pepperdine students, attending Borderline’s “College Country Night” and celebrating birthdays. The raucous college social event interrupted by an act of terror is an awful but ever more familiar worst-case scenario. And the ominous possibility that it could unfold on any given campus on any given day has altered the American college experience.
For one thing, many college students think a lot about gun violence erupting in public places. When Grave was hired to work in the campus library, she had to watch a 20-minute active-shooter training video as part of her employee training. The video she watched was, all told, pretty boring—to her, the weird part was that it was so boring and routine, sandwiched between segments on topics such as logging work hours and how to shepherd students out through the emergency exits in the event of severe weather. But ever since that training video, she says, on slow days when she’s working the front desk near the entrance of the library, “sometimes I’ll look around and imagine: If someone were to walk in right now [with a gun], what would I do?”
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When Grave read about the Thousand Oaks shooting, she found one aspect of the story particularly chilling. “There was this one girl there who was celebrating her 21st birthday,” she says. “It’s just really scary. When I turn 21 in three weeks, should I be worried about where I go [to celebrate]?”
Something similar happened to Chad Rhym, a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta who’s often out with friends on weeknights near campus. “To now see that happen in a place where I could hypothetically be,” he says, “I think that’s the scariest part.”
The recent shootings at synagogues and churches have also affected how Rhym evaluates his safety on campus at Morehouse, a historically black college. “If elementary schools aren’t off-limits, if synagogues, temples, [and] churches aren’t off-limits, I’m sure my black school isn’t either, which is scary,” he says. “I guess the more I think about it, the more I create these hypotheticals, the scarier everything becomes.”
Some students, however, have grown up with the threat of gun violence so present that by the time they get to college, it barely registers anymore. Mars Alvarez, a sophomore at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, grew up in East Houston, Texas, and attended a high school that she says routinely went into “lock-in” mode, securing all the entrances when “any sort of robbery or gun violence” was happening nearby. So when Dartmouth security officials announced last Friday night that students were to shelter in place because an active-shooter situation was unfolding on campus, Alvarez noticed that the other students with her in a theater after a student play were much more frightened than she was.