Tragedy rocked the University of Alabama campus in Huntsville Feb. 12 when a female biology professor allegedly gunned down six colleagues, three of them fatally, in an apparent dispute over tenure.
After the initial shock, higher-education officials from across the nation are reviewing the details to see if there is anything they can learn from the latest deadly campus shooting.
Amy Bishop, 42, a Harvard-educated neurobiologist who became an assistant professor at the school in 2003, has been charged with capital murder—a rare instance of a woman being accused in a mass shooting. Bishop, known as a bright woman who some students said struggled to explain complicated topics, is also a mother of four children.
She was taken Friday night in handcuffs to the county jail, and she reportedly said as she got into a police car: “It didn’t happen. There’s no way. … They are still alive.”
Students’ assessments of Bishop varied. Some recalled an attentive, friendly teacher, while others said she was an odd woman who couldn’t simplify difficult subjects for students. Sammie Lee Davis, the husband of a tenured researcher who was killed, said his wife had described Bishop as “not being able to deal with reality” and “not as good as she thought she was.”
Davis said his wife was a tenured researcher at the university. In a brief phone interview with the Associated Press, Davis said he was told his wife was at a meeting to discuss the tenure status of another faculty member who got angry and started shooting.
Davis’ wife, Maria Ragland Davis, was among those killed, along with Gopi K. Podila, chairman of the biological sciences department, and Adriel Johnson.
Bishop had created a portable cell incubator, known as InQ, that was less expensive than its larger counterparts. She and her husband had won $25,000 in 2007 to market the device.
Andrea Bennett, a sophomore majoring in nursing and an athlete at UAH, said a coach told her team that Bishop had been denied tenure, which the coach said might have led to the shooting.
Bennett described Bishop as being “very weird” and “a really big nerd.”
“She’s well-known on campus, but I wouldn’t say she’s a good teacher. I’ve heard a lot of complaints,” Bennett said. “She’s a genius, but she really just can’t explain things.”
Amanda Tucker, a junior nursing major from Alabaster, Ala., had Bishop for anatomy class about a year ago. Tucker said a group of students complained to a dean about Bishop’s classroom performance.
“When it came down to tests, and people asked her what was the best way to study, she’d just tell you, ‘Read the book.’ When the test came, there were just ridiculous questions. No one even knew what she was asking,” Tucker said.
However, UAH student Andrew Cole was in Bishop’s anatomy class Friday morning and said she seemed perfectly normal.
“She’s understanding, and was concerned about students,” he said. “I would have never thought it was her.”
Nick Lawton, 25, described Bishop as funny and accommodating with students.
“She seemed like a nice enough professor,” Lawton said.
The Huntsville campus has about 7,500 students in northern Alabama, not far from the Tennessee line. The university is known for its scientific and engineering programs and often works closely with NASA.
The space agency has a research center on the school’s campus, where many scientists and engineers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center perform Earth and space science research and development.
The university will remain closed all week, and all athletic events were canceled, an announcement on its web site said. Counselors were available to speak with students.
The wounded were still recovering in hospitals early on Feb. 13. Luis Cruz-Vera was in fair condition; Joseph Leahy in critical condition; and staffer Stephanie Monticello also was in critical condition.
It’s the second shooting in a week on an area campus. On Feb. 5, a 14-year-old student was killed in a middle school hallway in nearby Madison, Ala., allegedly by a fellow student in a gang-related dispute.
Mass shootings are rarely carried out by women, said Dr. Park Dietz, who is president of Threat Assessment Group Inc., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based violence prevention firm.
A notable exception was a 1985 rampage at a Springfield, Pa., mall in which three people were killed. In June 1986, Sylvia Seegrist was deemed guilty but mentally ill on three counts of murder and seven counts of attempted murder in the shooting spree.
Dietz, who interviewed Seegrist after her arrest, said it was possible the suspect in the Feb. 12 shooting had a long-standing grudge against colleagues or superiors and felt her complaints had not been dealt with fairly.
Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI agent and private criminal profiler based in Fredericksburg, Va., said there is no typical outline of a mass shooter but noted they often share a sense of paranoia, depression, or a feeling that they are not appreciated.
“They think somebody is out to get them or has mistreated them in some way,” McCrary said. “They go back to right this perceived injustice.”
The New York Times reported that Bishop had told acquaintances recently that she was worried about getting tenure, according to a business associate who met her at a business technology open house at the end of January and asked not to be named because of the close-knit nature of the science community in Huntsville.
“She began to talk about her problems getting tenure in a very forceful and animated way, saying it was unfair,” the associate told the Times, referring to a conversation in which she blamed specific colleagues for her problems. “She seemed to be one of these persons who was just very open with her feelings. A very smart, intense person who had a variety of opinions on issues.”
The university was put on lockdown “almost instantaneously,” reported the Times. But some students reportedly complained on Twitter and to reporters that they didn’t receive the university’s alert until hours after the shooting.
“The U-Alert was triggered late because the people involved in activating that system were involved in responding to the shooting,” said Charles Gailes, chief of the university police, at a news conference. “We’re going to stop, we’re going to sit down, we’re going to review what happened. All of these actions are going to be learning points, and we’re going to be better for this.”
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