Loughner's math teacher holds no grudge against Pima College
Reporter: Forrest Carr
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - As a loyal employee of Pima Community College, math instructor Ben McGahee finds himself in an unusual and uncomfortable position. He wants the world to know what he and his students went through in their dealings with accused mass shooter Jared Lee Loughner. And he's willing to defy orders from the administration in order to tell that story. But he's not willing to criticize the school's media clampdown or to second-guess its handling of Loughner.
Since the January 8 shootings, many have been asking whether the college did enough to intervene with Loughner. In the week following the shootings, McGahee gave a series of media interviews, including a live talkback with Fox News Channel, about his dealings with Loughner. In doing so he defied campus orders referring all media contact to the school's marketing department, and thereby became one of the very few Pima employees to step forward and help the public understand what happened between Loughner and the college. The topic came up again this week when newly released internal emails showed that two administrators had exchanged views sharply critical of McGahee's appearance.
In a follow-up telephone interview with 9 On Your Side Tuesday morning, McGahee said he had been motivated only by the desire to share his Loughner experiences with the public. "I wasn't trying to put on a show or anything," McGahee said. "This was not entertainment. This was news. I was just trying to tell my side of the story. This guy was dangerous not only to my class, but to other classes, and the entire school possibly."
As a 9 On Your Side investigation previously detailed, at the beginning of June McGahee was the target of an outburst that would lead to the fourth of six campus police reports on Loughner. The incident was truly bizarre -- Loughner picked a verbal fight with McGahee over the correct way to label the numeral 6. Loughner insisted it should be referred to as an "eighteen" and refused to back down. McGahee reported the incident up the command chain, where it reached the attention of division dean Patricia Houston and counselor Delisa Siddall. The two took strong action -- among other things, Siddall removed Loughner from class and marched him to her office to explain himself. But like the other six police reports filed on Loughner, this one did not lead to any charges or to any publicly documented mental health intervention. Nor did it lead immediately to a suspension.
In his phone interview with KGUN9 News Tuesday morning, McGahee said he has not studied the other five campus police reports on Loughner. However, he had nothing but praise for the way administrators handled his particular Loughner complaint. "Patricia Houston did everything in her power, and as well as Delisa Siddall. They did great jobs on both of their parts. I wouldn't suggest pointing at anyone at the school. I think they did a great job overall."
Even so, McGahee admitted that he was motivated to speak out by one other concern. "I want to find some way to keep this from happening again."
As 9 On Your Side has reported, since the shooting Pima administrators have refused to answer questions or give interviews about the college's handling of Loughner. In doing so, privately they cited the simple desire to stay out of the media spotlight, but publicly the college found other reasons to explain its silence. McGahee doesn't fault administrators for clamming up. "I'm pretty satisfied. I understand why they can't answer everything. They have done all they can."
McGahee admitted that in the first few awful days following the shooting, he was aware that Chancellor Roy Flores had ordered staff to direct all press inquiries to media coordinator Paul Schwalbach. But McGahee elected to disregard that and speak out anyway. In his interview with 9 On Your Side Tuesday morning, McGahee expressed no regret over his decision. But nor did he call on other faculty members to follow his footsteps in defying the college-imposed media ban. "If any other faculty members who taught Loughner want to speak up, that's great. If they want to remain quiet, that's fine too."
As 9 On Your Side reported on Sunday, right after McGahee went on Fox News the day after the shooting Schwalbach sent a snarky email to administrator Karen Lutrick behind McGahee's back criticizing his appearance. Lutrick noted with an implied sense of relief that McGahee had not come across as particularly eloquent. McGahee was not aware of that email until 9 On Your Side pointed it out to him Tuesday morning. He said he was surprised to hear about the criticism. "I guess she said I wasn't eloquent or charismatic. I do not understand what she meant by that. I don't think it was a time to be eloquent or charismatic." McGahee said he didn't know what questions Fox anchor Shepard Smith would ask him. "I thought he asked me some very good questions, and I just tried to answer them to the best of my ability."
McGahee added that he's not holding any grudges. "You know, I'm not really mad or angry at them for what they said. They are entitled to their opinion."
McGahee revealed that right after his Fox appearance, Schwalbach made a point of calling him and telling him to cease and desist. "He said to stop contacting media, and just to let him take care of it." Even so, three months later McGahee was willing to defy the media ban again and speak on the record with 9 On Your Side, although he did decline an invitation to do so on camera.
Still, it took courage for McGahee to grant yet another media interview. Even though he's not willing to directly criticize the college's media clampdown, he expressed support for those who have. McGahee is aware that the student newspaper, The Aztec Press, recently issued a call for the Pima administration to stop its stonewalling and to ease its tight media controls. Speaking about the student journalists, McGahee said, "They are right in a way, we don't have all the facts at the moment. The goal of the journalists is to remain unbiased and impartial. I guess I admire that, their stance on it."
Despite his reluctance to pick apart Pima's handling of Loughner, McGahee feels there is probably something to be learned from it. "In hindsight, he should have been treated or evaluated." He admits Loughner did not make any specific physical threats in his classroom. "But at the same time, you know, you gotta take action somewhere. Who might be the next Jared Loughner to come into a classroom and be threatening? It's hard to draw that line. At what point do you say, hey, do you need a mental evaluation?"
McGahee realizes that a confrontation with any student over a mental health issue could put the school into a difficult position. "If you say that to a student, he might be offended. That might make the school look bad. But at the same time, something has to be done, if there's something wrong with the student. PCC might have to make its policies more strict."
All of this puts McGahee in the curious position of being willing to defy orders barring media interviews about Loughner in hopes of preventing a recurrence of what happened, while at the same time being unwilling to openly criticize the college. One reason for his reluctance to second-guess Pima is obvious. "As an employee, I don't want to say anything bad." But in speaking with McGahee, it's impossible to miss the pride that McGahee feels in being a part of PCC. "It's a great school to go to, and to teach."
Any next steps, McGahee says, are strictly up to the administration. He is fine with that, and advises patience. "Time will tell."