Workplace Violence and Hiring Practices

In the days following the shooting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, some alarming facts have been discovered by the media about the alleged shooter, Professor Amy Bishop.  In 1986, she shot and killed her brother after a family dispute.  In 1994, she and her husband were questioned in connection with a mail bombing attempt, and in 2003, she was charged with assault for punching a woman at an IHOP restaurant.  This has prompted some talking heads in the media to question the University’s hiring practices.  A recent New York Times piece on the shooting answers the question of how the University could have overlooked this history of violence:

The job application for the University of Alabama in Huntsville asked, “Have you ever been convicted of an offense other than a minor traffic violation?” Amy Bishop, who took a tenure-track job there in 2003, answered the question with a simple “no.”

Technically, she was correct. She was never charged with her brother’s death, and though she was sentenced to probation in the IHOP incident, she was never officially found guilty. She and her husband, James E. Anderson, were questioned in connection with the mail bomb sent in 1993 to one of her mentors at Harvard, Dr. Paul A. Rosenberg, a professor of neurology, but nothing came of it.

Even if the University did a background check, the only thing that might have come up would have been the assault, and given that it occurred the same year she was hired, it might not have been in her record at the time when a background check would have been conducted for her hiring.  Moreover, an altercation at an IHOP is a far cry from a mass shooting and would not necessarily put anyone on notice of a propensity for that level of violence.  Unless there is some real evidence that the University knew or should have known that Ms. Bishop might attack her colleagues, there is no basis for blaming anyone other than Ms. Bishop for this incident. 

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