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Thursday 31 October 2002

Robert Flores’ Letter

Robert Flores, the guy who killed four people at the University of Arizona on Monday, sent a letter to the Arizona Daily Star telling his story. It’s 22 pages long, and I suggest reading the whole thing.

The usual suspects have been working pretty hard to demonize they guy (which shouldn’t be too hard, because he did, after all, kill four people), but what strikes me about the letter is that at least one or two of Flores’ victims seems to have had it coming. I’m not saying that these people deserved to be shot, mind you, but rather that — at least in his version of the story — he’d actually been wronged by people at the school of nursing who were just going through the motions.

He had to re-take a class due to, according to him, a stickler of an instruction who failed him on technicalities. Re-taking this class would mean postponing other classes because of a rigid school scheduling system. This would require him to stop being a full-time student for the time being, which would require him to begin paying back his student loans. Paying back these loans would not leave him with enough money to pay his child support, which would mean that his LPN license would be suspended, meaning he couldn’t work. He ultimately decided to kill the instructors he saw as the source of his problems, and then to kill himself.

That was almost certainly a bad decision, but I can certainly empathize with him. About 50% of my interactions with customer-service-type people wind up at a point where the entire problem could be simply and quickly solved with no cost or trouble to anyone — at which point I’m told that the elegant and obvious solution that presents itself just won’t work, because of “policy”. Whenever customer service mentions “policy”, you’ve got to get ready for the shaft, because the policy is never to just take care of the problem and move on.

When this happens, I usually want to kill someone. The difference between me and Mr. Flores is that 1) I resist these urges, and 2) the issues like this I’ve run into have never threatened to cast my life into ruin.

The letter is a good lesson in unintended consequences and in interpersonal communications between superiors and subordinates (i.e. instructors and students). While Flores alone was ultimately responsible for his actions, it sounds to me like he was unnecessarily and pettily hounded to a point where he felt he could no longer function.

Posted by tino at 12:35 31.10.02
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I read this guy’s note and had two reactions:

He had the problem with remaining full-time as

a student. He could have padded his schedule for one semester with Rocks for Jocks. Or art classes.

I have had university classes with non-tradtional students. Generally they’re a pain in the ass; they ask irrelevant questions and seem to think that their life/work experience entitles them to a pass in the class.

Posted by: RRP at November 1, 2002 07:01 PM

as a relative of one of the deceased professors maybe it should come to the attention of the writer of the above commentary that there are two sides to every story (even a horror story like this). did it occur to you that it’s possible that by passing this student…more deaths would have occured because of unsafe nursing practices? this man did not have a grip on any type of reality that i know of….and to take the side of this murderer, i’m wondering what type of reality you live in?

Posted by: at December 1, 2002 08:30 PM

Of course there are two sides to every story; that’s the whole point. We usually don’t hear anything meaningful about people who go on shooting sprees. They’re all quiet types who keep to themselves and who surprise everyone when they snap one day, or they’re Gun Nuts who have spent the last five years plotting revenge, writing their own Mein Kampf on the web. In both cases, we are all left to wonder what could possibly have spawned such violence.

In this case, Flores has told us exactly what spawned it. Now, I do acknowledge that his own internal instability had far more to do with his murders than did the specific events leading up to them; but the fact remains that those events occurred.

And my empathy for him is driven not by the fact that he had to re-take a class; it’s that his need to re-take this class would have resulted in a cascade of other idiocy that raised the importance of that single grade much higher than it ever should have been. If he’s not doing the work properly, by all means flunk him. But failing a single class shouldn’t result in the shit-storm that Flores was facing. It’s not fair to the student or to the instructor.

The risk of Flores’ entire life being turned upside-down as the result of a single failed class, and not the failure itself, seems to be what set Flores off.

And as far as the reality he inhabited, I have not seen any real investigative reporting into what kind of person Flores was. The Daily Star has run a number of contradictory stories: nursing students said he was “loud and intimidating”, and that he didn’t turn in assignments, etc.; but in a story carrying a headline about Flores “talking his way” into UA — seeming to imply that he wasn’t qualified — we find that he got As and Bs in most UA classes, outside of the nursing school.

In this article, The Daily Star says that “the picture that UA e-mails and evaluations from faculty and fellow students creates shows a frustrated student who was sometimes technically competent but […] didn’t complete coursework.”

Remember, the same newspaper reported that he got mainly As and Bs in “most UA classes”. So was he “sometimes” “competent” and didn’t complete coursework, or did he get As and Bs?

I’d be very interested in finding the truth of the matter, but that’d be impossible. I’ve been accused here of inhabiting some private reality because I’ve suggested that Flores’ actions were the unintended consequences of a number of unrelated and well-intentioned policies that intersected in his life. There’s no way a newspaper is going to risk the anger of its readers and a possible loss of advertising revenue by doing anything other than mourning the sainted dead. If any students at UA see any truth in Flores’ accusations, they’re going to keep quiet about it.

And despite there being, as you have so correctly observed, two sides to every story, I have yet to see any kind of investigation into Flores’ side of this story. We’ve got his letter; we’ve got his school records; and we’ve got the responses of faculty members and students singing paeans to the dead and excoriating Flores. Flores’ complaints, while clearly those of a megalomaniac, are internally consistent. The criticisms of Flores are not. I have seen no attempt made by anyone to explain those inconsistencies.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I feel sympathy for the families of Flores’ victims; I feel empathy for Flores. They are similar but different emotions.

It bothers me that everyone seems to be ignoring even the possibility that he had a point. Through idiocy like zero-tolerance policies, as well as well-intentioned rules like those that Flores was caught up in, our society seems to be constantly raising the stakes in nearly everything we do, and becoming more confrontational into the bargain. We then all stand around surprised when someone snaps because what would normally be a small setback becomes a life-destroying defeat.

Posted by: Tino at December 3, 2002 01:35 AM