Deadly Serious: The Boston Marathon Tragedy and Education

By John O. Harney

As this year began, NEJHE published the thoughtful concerns of Lasell College admissions official Christopher M. Gray about how colleges would need to address applicants who have experienced a traumatic and life-changing event such as 9/11 or the Sandy Hook mass murders. Now such events have visited Boston and so will traumatized applicants.

Two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, killing three and injuring more than 260. The pressure-cooker bombs sent shrapnel at leg-level, leading to amputations for 15 victims.

An immediate concern was how to deal with the feelings of school children whose sense of safety was shattered by the blasts. One of those killed was 8-year-old Martin Richard. His mother and sister were severely injured. Among the responses, the Southern Poverty Law Center posted a new toolkit for educators and community leaders for “When Bad Things Happen.” Psychology Today magazine published a piece onWhat to Look for if Your Child is Having Problems.”

In a flash, the new diverse Boston was revealed as were myriad connections to higher education.

Another of those killed by the bombings was a Boston University student from China named Lu Lingzi. An only child, her death raised concerns about the future vibrancy of study abroad from China and about China’s one child-per family population control policy. (Another example of a policy that seemed more rational in theory than in real life … and death.)

Another bombing victim Krystle Campbell had a scholarship established in her name at Massachusetts Bay Community College where she had earned an associate degree before transferring to UMass Boston. Candidates for the MassBay scholarships must be business majors, as Campbell was, and must submit an essay about resiliency, making a difference, generosity of spirit, or overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal.” Campbell was also to be awarded a posthumous degree from UMass Boston in May.


Nearly three days after the bombing, the fatal shooting of an MIT police officer on the night of Thursday, April 18, led to a “shelter in place” order for Boston and surrounding communities. Practicing such orders has become as much a part of going to school as fire drills once were. But such lockdowns were new to large metro areas.

One of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a shootout with police on Friday, April 19. Tamerlan’s brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev attended UMass Dartmouth.

UMass Dartmouth was particularly affected.

Two Kazahk nationals Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, who were also enrolled at UMass Dartmouth, were charged with conspiring to obstruct justice. A third man, Robel Phillipos, who also formerly attended UMass Dartmouth was charged with making false statements to investigators.

After news reports raised questions about the students’ grades, UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Divina Grossman told Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker: “We need to review all our policies and procedures. We have to look at everything we did. We owe it to the Commonwealth, we owe it to the people who died, and we owe it to the faculty and students here.”

Walker wrote that Grossman also worried about “the school’s hundreds of international and immigrant students, who might come under unfair scrutiny.”

At UMass Dartmouth’s commencement, a moment of silence to honor victims and heroes was pierced by a chant of “USA, USA, USA.”


As the city healed, Boston businesses, foundations and individual donors worked with Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Gov. Deval Patrick to raise more than $30 million for a One Fund Boston. The fund was designed to support the families of those killed and help pay what were sure to be exorbitant medical bills for amputees and other victims.

Bostonians were hailed for their police work and tolerance. But the latter is always fragile. As Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body was moved to a Worcester funeral home, known for handling burials of the poor and unwanted, a hue and cry arose about the appropriate resting place for a terrorist; no one wanted the body. Ultimately, the remains were moved to Virginia, where there was also resistance.

Among campus actions in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and investigation …

On April 22, Bridgewater State University President Dana Mohler-Faria invited the university family to participate in a day of reflection, writing:

“Remarkably, we have an opportunity to ensure these days will not be remembered for all that was unthinkable, irrational and frantic.  Instead, this can become a time in our lives defined by astonishing courage, wonderful acts of kindness, extraordinary care and concern for others, and resolve that knows no breaking point.  From the hundreds of law enforcement officials to the thousands of volunteer caregivers, and from the character of both the surviving and the slain, it is plain to see that heroism and selflessness abound.

If we are not diligent, however, time will quickly pass, our routines will return to normal, and we will have failed to seize upon this terrifically inspiring moment.  Just as an unimaginable crisis galvanized our determination to become more compassionate, caring and thoughtful, we must now endeavor—on a daily basis—to demonstrate the same focus and tenacity while marshaling the energies of our university family around the mission of building a better world.”

Through the Arts Outreach Initiative, a partnership between the Boston University Medical Campus and BU’s College of Fine Arts, that builds relationships between artistic creativity and health care practices, students are using their talents to help the 23 victims being treated at BU’s affiliated academic hospital.

The week after the bombing, Northeastern University featured a panel of faculty experts for a discussion of the issues that the bombing and the search for the perpetrators raised, including “the motivation for crime, the importance of resilience, the prosecution of domestic terror suspects, the dangers of misreading religious motivations, and the role of social media.” Northeastern also created a website regarding the response to the tragedy at

At Emerson College, President Lee Pelton reminded students: “We are the story tellers, we are the builders of human hopes and aspirations and yes, of failures. We are the magic makers, the myth makers. We are the truth tellers.”

Boston was naturally hit hardest. But campuses elsewhere in New England were touched too. At Gateway Community College in New Haven, Conn., President Dorsey L. Kendrick wrote: “The college community is deeply saddened by the increased violence that has now cast its shadow on our neighbors in Boston. Our prayers go out to [those] who were injured, and to the loved ones of the three who lost their lives. We especially pray for the misguided souls who believe that acts of violence are the path to conflict resolution. We hope that they, and all who feel disenfranchised will realize that the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. matter more today than ever. He said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I would also like to assure our community that we are doing everything possible to keep our campus a secure and safe learning environment. In the next few weeks, there will be a series of Safety Training and Security seminars for faculty, staff and students, in an effort to engage everyone in this effort and maximize the systems that are in place.”

An MIT urban planning student named Andy Cook used the tragedy as a way to call for a larger view: “Deciphering the ‘why’ behind the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt will be a long and contentious task. For some, it will begin and end with the biography of the bombers themselves. But we should press further, and follow with a close examination of the global systems that foster inequality, breeding hatred and violence internationally,” wrote Cook in the nonprofit Next City’s long-form Forefront series. “We as Americans and as planners especially must never stop considering the unintended consequences of the systems we live by. We must measure impacts and decide when and how to retool those systems that are broken, that allow for days like Monday to occur.”

Tragedy can inform education, educators and public policy, if we are open to change and disciplined and focused in our reactions. If not, it’s likely that more deadly consequences await us in the shadows of Eugene O’Neill’s cautionary words: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.”

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.


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