Colorado Movie Massacre: 5 Spin-Off Stories Student Journalists Should Explore

In the aftermath of the Aurora, Colo., movie massacre, the professional news media are presenting an endless stream of stories about the shooting, suspect, victims, weaponry, and the legal and law enforcement processes.

Many of the reports are directly or indirectly related to students, faculty, and staff at colleges and universities nationwide.

While student media are currently in slowdown or shutdown mode due to summer break— boasting skeleton staffs and reduced publishing schedules— the fall semester should not be considered too late to run stories in some way connected to the horrific event in Colorado.

Here are five potentially relevant news angles and spin-off stories student journalists should consider tackling at or near the start of the new school year.

1) Campus gun rules and culture: As the shock from the shooting segues to grief, anger, and soul searching, the gun debate has begun ratcheting up nationwide with renewed fervor.  Impassioned arguments range from those focused on the need for stricter gun laws to those pushing for a relaxation of concealed carry rules– built atop the premise that a moviegoer legally armed that night in the Aurora theater may have taken out the shooter before so much blood was shed.

For a related report, first outline your state’s gun laws, purchase procedures, and concealed carry permit specifications.  Then, more generally, explore your campus gun, and anti-gun, cultures.  Speak to local gun owners, collectors, and sellers about the Aurora tragedy and their larger motivations for making firearms a part of their lives.  Also seek out students or staff who have in some way been affected by a gun crime.  Separately, look into the amount and types of firearms discovered and confiscated on your campus each year, including how many have been purchased illegally.

2) Campus security issues and oversights: The shooting has raised many questions about movie theater security nationwide.  For instance, over the weekend, a Colorado State University student who previously worked at a theater confirmed what most moviegoers have long suspected: cinema security is mostly lax or entirely absent.

As Emily Kribs wrote in The Rocky Mountain Collegian, CSU’s campus newspaper, “I worked in a Thornton, Colo., movie theater for one summer, during which we weren’t faced with anything close to the shooting at Aurora’s Century 16 complex.  However, I think we were similarly prepared for one, which is to say not at all.  In terms of security, we had a box around the ticket sellers designed to prevent theft, rather than violence. We relied on peoples’ social graces when we told them they couldn’t enter without a ticket or told them to stop talking. And we never performed pat-downs or examined peoples’ costumes for potential threats.”

Extending Kribs’s observations to the larger theater of academia, pinpoint key safety issues on your campus.  Through objective reporting, confirm the most unsafe areas at your school and within the surrounding community. Highlight student behaviors deemed especially risky, such as solitary late-night food runs or attending house parties in a questionable part of town. Break down the ins-and-outs of the security team and tactics in place for student and staff protection.  Confirm the spots, times, and types of incidents that campus police are notoriously slow to deal with or tend to ignore.

Building upon the shooting’s occurrence at a midnight show, focus especially heavily on nighttime safety. Speak to student survivors of after-dark crimes. Go on an overnight ride-along with local police. Investigate late-night security at campus residence halls, science facilities, and parking lots. Survey students more generally about how safe they feel on campus at night, while alone or with friends, during the week and on the weekends.

3) Enrolled and in mourning: Family, friends, and colleagues of the shooting victims are increasingly speaking to news media about the individuals close to them who were injured or killed and their own shock and sadness– especially those who lost someone they love.

In a much larger sense, students experience loss on many levels during college— rarely as horrifically but sometimes just as suddenly and jarringly as those affected by the attack in Aurora. Sadly, the death of a parent is among the most common losses students face. In fact, one in 10 individuals deals with the death of mom or dad before turning 25.

In spring 2011, outgoing Daily Kansan editor-in-chief Kelly Stroda told the tales of three University of Kansas students who lost a parent during their time in school.  As she wrote in the introduction, “College students who lose a parent are affected emotionally, psychologically, physically, academically and financially.  At the very time they are about to launch independent lives, they lose the people they rely on most for direction.”

Tell the stories of students on your campus who have lost someone close to them, such as a parent, during their childhood, adolescence or as undergraduates. Separately, reach out to the loved ones of students who died while still enrolled at your school. Find out how the families are currently coping, what they are doing to ensure the students’ memories live on, and how the school handled the deaths at the time and in the long term.

4) Crime related: While eliciting nowhere near the same amount of sympathy as the deceased, survivors, and their loved ones, a few other individuals connected to the shooting are most likely in pain at the moment and in need of support: the family and friends of suspect James Holmes.

Of course, as most of the world now knows, when contacted by a reporter about her son’s possible involvement in the attack, Arlene Holmes immediately responded, “You have the right person.  I need to call the police. . . . I need to fly out to Colorado.”

The words are a chillingly powerful reminder: Our family members are often the ones who know us best, and are sometimes majorly affected by our decisions and mistakes. In this case, Holmes’s crime will undoubtedly have a tremendous, long-term impact on his close and extended family.

To better understand the ins-and-outs of this type of criminal connection, speak to students and staff currently dealing with the consequences of a loved one’s criminal activity or imprisonment. Document how their loved one’s crimes or punishments have impacted their own lives and their related struggles to maintain or move past a loving relationship.

Separately, profile students who have a criminal history of their own. Also, look into your school’s policies and procedures regarding student and staff criminal checks, including how the findings impact enrollment and employment decisions.

5) Student dropouts: Prior to planning and carrying out the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, James Holmes was apparently a quiet, academically-minded young man. He had recently been struggling though in a neurosciences graduate program and was in the process of withdrawing from school. In no way is the university at which he was enrolled being blamed for his horrific behavior.

But his pending dropout status aligns him with many, many students who do not finish college or graduate school.  At the undergraduate level, the number of students leaving school prior to commencement has risen so dramatically in recent years that the U.S. now boasts the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.

In respect to its commonality, an Oakland University student who had previously dropped out of school even argued this past spring that dropouts deserve a ceremony similar to traditional graduations.

As Daniel Drake wrote in a Mooring Mast column headlined “A Shout-Out to Dropouts,” “[W]hile the graduates are treated as people, the rest of us are treated as statistics.  Every year, analysts write about why some of us failed to complete all four years of our degree.  Nobody writes about all the work we did to make it through one year, or two, or three.  If we celebrate the hard work of those who graduate, why not celebrate that of those who don’t?”

Regardless of whether or not we should celebrate them, let’s start by reporting upon them. Seek out individuals who have dropped out of your school, temporarily or permanently, due to financial, academic, behavioral or general life troubles.

Tell the stories of their student stints and current off-campus lives, including the amount, type, and quality of assistance offered by staff at your school. Also gather and share their advice to current students on the precipice of voluntarily leaving or being forced to withdraw from school.

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