Everyone brings something different to Penn State. Some people bring talent or ambition or drive.
Some people bring darker things. Jillian Robbins fell in that group. She didn’t come to Penn State to make it better.
She had a gun, and she used it.
She had a knife. She used that, too.
It was Sept. 17, 1996. It was 9:34 a.m. That was the moment when Penn State went from being a quiet school in middle of rural central Pennsylvania, a university where you could rightly say “Well, that kind of thing doesn’t happen here,” to being a college that had to confront the kind of violence that could rip apart a Tuesday morning and end a girl’s life on a lawn where people studied and sunbathed and laughed.
Robbins hid herself in the bushes with a telescopic rifle. She perverted her Army Reserve training, not using it to help or defend.
Instead, she gunned down Melanie Spalla, a young woman from Altoona who came to University Park to study communications. Spalla died near the fence, about 100 feet away.
She picked off Nicholas Mensah, a business major from Philadelphia. Mensah was dragged behind a tree after he fell. He survived.
Every story needs a hero. That morning, the hero was Brendon Malovrh, an honors student who said he never heard a rifle shot before. This one galvanized him to action. He wrestled the gun away. Robbins retaliated with the knife.
And that’s where Malovrh became even more remarkable. When Robbins attacked him, her wild slash ended up stabbing into her own leg.
Malovrh didn’t just save the lives of the others on the lawn. He saved Robbins, too, pulling off his belt and using it as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding of the 19-year-old girl with a history of psychiatric problems and attempted suicide, a girl who called herself Crazy Jill.
Robbins continues to serve a 30- to-60 year sentence at Muncy state prison for the murder of Spalla and attempted murder of Mensah. She never attended Penn State.
Her list of psychiatric diagnoses sounds too large for just one person. Depression, borderline personality disorder, dysthmic disorder, dissociative disorder, post-traumatic stress.
Twenty years later, Penn State, like all schools and campuses and, well, everywhere, struggles with a world where, on the one hand, violent crime is down, but on the other, when it happens, it seems to happen in a blockbuster movie surround-sound kind of way.
Campus violence had happened before Robbins came to the HUB. It happened after. It will keep happening.
But just because we know that doesn’t mean that we have to accept it.
While Penn State never welcomed Robbins into a classroom, it is taking big steps when it comes to providing mental health services for its students. In the last year, Counseling and Psychological Services has been the recipient of the class gift plus other complementary funds to help put as many students in touch with the help they need as possible, and to do it as easily and as readily as possible.
After every shooting (and that’s a phrase we should never have to use) there is the inevitable debate. Is the problem the guns? Is the problem mental health care?
The problem is that all we have is debate. If your house is on fire, you don’t wait to find out of it’s electrical or arson before you grab a bucket or a hose and do what you can to put it out. The gun issue isn’t something Penn State can address, but mental health is, and so it has.
Does that eliminate violence? No. But it’s a step. If we take enough of them, maybe that can end up being what Spalla and Mensah and Malovrh brought to Penn State. A future of hope and action.