The following story is one of the many gun violences incidents that happened this week that, even in this time of intensified scrutiny on firearms, you probably didn’t hear about.
At around 2 p.m on Tuesday, 34-year-old Sean Johnson came into the fourth-floor office of his financial aid officer at Stevens Institute of Business & Arts. After an argument about financial aid, Johnson shot Greg Elsenrath with a el-Tec 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol and then turned the gun on himself. The firearm with which Johnson shot Elsenrath, who had worked with the college for more than 15 years, had its serial number filed off, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Some sources said that Elsenrath informed Johnson his financial aid had run out.
Johnson was reportedly an on-again, off-again student at the for-profit college, which had recently changed its name from Patricia Stevens College and moved to a fancy new downtown $3 million facility. Local television station KMOV reported that Johnson was on court-ordered mental health medication. Eric Barnhart, who once served as Johnson’s attorney, told News 4 that “his former client was a productive member of society when he was on his medication.”
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told USA Today that he was “hopeful” both Johnson and Elsenrath would live.
In one sense, this story is an isolated incident in which an argument reaches a tragic ending. In another sense, this story sits at the intersection of three major problems in America today: An increasing worry over preventable gun violence, the crushing loads of debt students take on as they face and the lack of access and support for those suffering from mental health issues.
Little is known about the shooter so far, but thanks to public records, we do have a sense of what it is like to be a student at Stevens. As for-profit colleges go, Stevens is a tiny one. It enrolls just 195 undergraduate students, more than 90 percent of them women and 73 percent of them African American (though based on photos from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Johnson was white), according to Department of Education statistics. The new facility is an indication the school is interested in expanding. Indeed, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the school planned on “adding bachelor’s degrees in several fields, including business administration, interior design and fashion merchandising.”
In the most recent school year more than half of the students, 69 percent, received Pell grants, or federal financial aid that goes to the poorest of students. The school also had a six-year graduation rate of 61 percent, and in 2009 the school’s three-year default rate was 28.3 percent. This is a bit higher than the average for-profit college, which came in with 2009 three-year default rates of 22.7 percent. By comparison, public colleges had a three-year default rate of 11 percent and private nonprofit universities had a default rate of 7.5 percent, according to Department of Education data.
Debt is a problem for many, but for students who can’t secure a degree, it can be devastating because they don’t have the credential employers demand but still have to begin repaying loans. Though instances of violence against others over financial aid like in Johnson’s case are extremely rare, students trapped in debt turning suicidal are far from unheard of.
Johnson also clearly had a record of mental health problems and somehow gained access to an illegal gun. Johnson also faced previous charges for assault and unlawful use of a weapon when he assaulted a cab driver with a box cutter in 2009, News 4 reported. He also once threw a brick through a police car window while an officer was watching. Johnson clearly had a history of violence.
As administrators, parents and students wonder how to prevent another incident like this, the questions are big ones. How do we stop mentally unstable people from using violence when a disagreement gets out of hand? How do we stop the “wrong” people from gaining access to deadly weapons? How do we make paying for college something that doesn’t make people desperate? But as daunting as these problems seem, it isn’t as if there aren’t ways we can find ways to at least try to keep guns from falling in the wrong hands or ways to keep debt from becoming so insurmountable that students can only turn to hopelessness or rage.
Some are starting to take positive preventative steps. On Wednesday, the president signed a series of executive orders stepping up enforcement of existing gun regulations and opening up research into gun violence, some of which will better regulate guns on college campuses. The Department of Education has tried to regulate debt-imposing for-profit colleges, withholding financial aid if too many students are defaulting on their loans (though the regulations were significantly watered down after a massive lobbying effort). And more than 300 college presidents recently made a very public push for Congress to enact stricter gun regulations.
But just because the path to preventing another such instance of violence like the one one in which Elsenrath and Johnson were injured is complicated and difficult doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.