University News

In wake of Aurora shooting, threat teams stress dedication to student safety

News Editor
Friday, September 21, 2012

Though the University receives “consistent reports” from students expressing concerns about their peers, few cases have required drastic intervention by threat assessment teams, said Senior Associate Dean for Student Life Jonah Ward and Director of Psychological Services Belinda Johnson.
Administrators gather about twice a month as a threat assessment team that represents the Office of Student Life, Psychological Services and the Department of Public Safety. Such teams received national attention this summer, when James Holmes, a former graduate student at the University of Colorado at Denver, shot attendees of a midnight movie screening. Holmes had previously seen a university psychiatrist.
In the past, Brown had a committee that would “come together occasionally” for complicated cases regarding student concerns, but that team was not geared toward threat assessment, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services. But that changed in 2007, after a shooting at Virginia Poloytechnic and State University sent shockwaves through higher education.
“After Virginia Tech, it was really clear, I think, for all campuses that departments of public safety were going to play more of a lead role” in addressing concerns about students, Klawunn said.
“If there’s one thing Virginia Tech has taught us, it’s that many people have different pieces of the puzzle,” said Paul Shanley, deputy chief of public safety.

A connected community
Because Brown is a much smaller university than Virginia Tech or the University of Colorado, it is “more likely” officials will know if there is reason to be concerned about a student, Johnson said.
The University is most effective when it identifies cases in which students could pose a potential threat and prevents those situations from escalating, Shanley said.
Threat assessment does not fully capture what the team looks for, Johnson said. Administrators try to evaluate if a student’s behavior signifies “a serious threat” or just indicates major stress, she said.
Students concerned about their peers can report concerns to the Office of Student Life, Ward said. Most cases are handled through the Office of Student Life or Psychological Services.
The University often does not know immediately if students pose a violent threat, Klawunn said.
“It could go in many different ways,” she said. “It could be one conversation – and someone knows how to refer the friend, and the friend gets help, and we never hear (from them) again.”
But Klawunn said that if students feel one of their peers poses any “imminent danger,” they should immediately report those concerns to DPS.

Assessing threats
Threat assessment originates from a model developed by the United States Secret Service, said Gene Deisinger, who heads the threat assessment team at Virginia Tech and co-authored a manual for university threat assessment.
Teams conduct “contextual assessments,” Deisinger said, to determine if circumstances might drive individuals – whether students, faculty or staff members – toward violence.
Often, he said, “people are trying to deal with real problems” but are doing so in “ineffective ways.”
There are usually four steps to threat assessment, said Marisa Randazzo, who co-wrote the handbook with Deisinger. Teams, she said, should identify people who may pose concerns, gather information about them, determine whether they might turn to violence, and, if so, devise a plan to counter that threat.
Universities and colleges should all have some form of a threat assessment program, Randazzo said, and they should follow objective standards to determine what poses a threat.

Case closed?
But questions arise about how effective threat assessment is – especially when people who pose threats withdraw or are in the process of withdrawing from a university or college.
Randazzo, Deisinger and University officials all declined to comment specifically on the case of the University of Colorado, from which Holmes was in the process of withdrawing this summer.
But Randazzo emphasized that institutions should not consider a case closed because an individual has left campus.
“Being separate from the institution does not guarantee safety,” she said. “If the team has done the job of gathering the information, if the team feels this person poses a threat, they still need to do something.”
Though the person may be beyond the reach of university officials, she recommended getting in touch with local law enforcement agencies as well as the individual’s family.
If a student is withdrawing from Brown, the University will try to make sure his or her family “understands what our concerns are,” Klawunn said. In some situations, DPS will also get in touch with the student’s local police department.
But Klawunn emphasized that if the student does not re-enroll at Brown, the University does not have a way to monitor that person long-term.
“In that case, we would have left that person most frequently with a family member knowing what happened,” she said.
Johnson said it is “hard to generalize” about how the University can handle cases where students withdraw, but she said administrators would take “whatever steps are necessary” to mitigate potential future threats.