Expelling Students: Cautionary Advice from Allan Shackelford

In two recent, tragic examples, a student who was expelled from a postsecondary institution for apparent behavioral issues later shot, killed, and injured other people. In one case, Jared Loughner, expelled from Pima Community College (Tucson, AZ) attacked citizens who were not associated with the institution. Pima Community College then came under considerable scrutiny as public representatives, legislators, and the press debated whether the college should have done more to alert and protect the community when expelling a person who had evidenced behavioral problems.

In the other, more recent case, a student expelled from Oikos University (Oakland, CA) returned to campus, apparently enraged by a dispute over a requested tuition refund, and shot and killed several members of the campus community.

"If you have an individual that is creating problems to the extent that you feel you need to expel them from campus, the act of expelling them does not necessarily solve or end the problem either for people within or people outside the ivy walls of the institution."
Allan Shackelford

In an interview this week, we asked Allan Shackelford to offer his reflections on the tragedies in Tucson, AZ and Oakland, CA and to offer his recommendations. As an attorney and/or consultant, Allan Shackelford has advised institutions of higher education for more than 30 years. He is the co-author (with Anne Lundquist) of The Student Affairs Handbook: Translating Legal Principles into Effective Policies.

The recent tragedies have raised difficult questions for the higher ed community. Are there additional actions that an institution needs to do or consider, in situations where a student is being expelled for threatening behavior?

Here is what Shackelford suggests.

Do a Complete Risk Assessment

Shackelford advises that to the extent possible, when making the decision to expel a student for behavioral issues, an institution needs to proactively assess and evaluate what potentially might happen afterward. "Beyond just following your best practices and policies," he adds, "take an assessment of the situation and of what could be done to alleviate any potential risk."

You have to get the right people around the table -- a mental health professional, the dean of students, judicial affairs, campus safety -- and ensure that there’s an informed and reasoned assessment. If your institution does not already have a behavioral intervention and/or threat assessment team, consider forming one. In the event of a crisis or potential threat, assemble an impromptu team, but ensure that all the necessary people are present. "The process has to be integrated and collaborative," Shackelford adds.

CREATING AN EFFECTIVE BEHAVIORAL INTERVENTION TEAM

In August 2011, Academic Impressions interviewed Gene Deisinger, deputy chief of police and director of threat management services at Virginia Tech, for his advice on:

  • How to establish early behavioral intervention teams or threat assessment teams when challenged to do more with existing resources (read this article)
  • Pitfalls to avoid when establishing early behavioral intervention teams or threat assessment teams (read this article)

We hope these free resources will be useful to your institution.

The challenge is to avoid either under-reacting or over-reacting to the situation. You need to determine what the worst-case scenario would be and how likely the professionals on your campus believe that scenario to be. Shackelford advises that your team needs to:

  • "Connect the dots by gathering information from all those who may know something about what has been occurring, including students, faculty, and related campus units such as counselors, police, judicial affairs, etc."
  • "To the extent you are able, you need to look at the student's past history of improper behavior. In the situations at both Pima Community College and Oikos University, the individual had a history of improper behavior."
  • "Determine whether some particular event has occurred that might serve as a trigger for more violent conduct going forward. This could be an event related to the student's family situation, personal relationships, class participation, involvement with other students, or a dispute with administrators. The last two were reportedly the triggers in the Oakland situation."
  • "How concerned are those who are directly involved with the student that his or her conduct will get out of hand?"

CRITICAL QUESTIONS TO ASK DURING THREAT ASSESSMENT

For a more in-depth review of this process, Shackelford recommends the article "A model for assessment and mitigation of threats on the college campus" by Eileen Weisenbach Keller, Stephanie Hughes, and Giles Hertz (2011).

Take Steps to Alleviate the Risk

When dealing with an individual who presents a potential and likely threat to others in your campus community (and outside of campus), Shackelford cautions that it's crucial to examine any interactions and disputes between that individual and administration or faculty on a case-by-case basis, rather than simply falling back on time-honored procedures. While acknowledging that we now have the advantage of hindsight, Shackelford cites the example of the situation that developed at Oikos University.

In this case, the student allegedly demanded that his tuition be refunded, and the administrator who informed him that the institution would not provide a full refund became his target when he returned to campus with the intent to kill (though the student didn't realize that the administrator was no longer actually employed at Oikos University when he returned to campus).

Shackelford asks these questions: "After assessing the potential risk and what could be done to alleviate the risk and the triggering conflict in this case, would it have been better to give the student the full refund rather than follow the black-and-white protocol of giving a pro rata refund? Would this have alleviated the student's anger? In some cases, making an exception to established policy may be an acceptable response to a threatening situation."

While we don't know the whole situation as it unfolded at Oikos University, the question is a critical one to ask when looking forward to other potential scenarios. The bottom line, Shackelford advises, is that "a student who presents the threat of harm is an exception to your usual policies. You want to consider how to handle this conflict in a way that de-escalates it and safeguards lives."