Make Your Threat Assessment Team Effective: Part 1

This is the first of two articles offering practical advice on making behavioral intervention teams effective. The second article, which will focus on five pitfalls to avoid, will appear in late August. An abbreviated version of this article appeared in an earlier edition of Higher Ed Impact.

August 4, 2011. In today’s difficult economic climate, most institutions of higher education are facing significant reductions in counseling and mental health budgets at a time when the mental health needs of students, faculty, and staff are on the rise. In a recent survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, 77 percent of counseling center directors indicated that the number of students on campus with severe mental health issues had increased in the past year. And while most available studies focus on student mental health, last year’s shooting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville offers a tragic reminder that faculty and staff may also face mental health issues.

We asked 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. Deisinger is both a police officer and a clinical psychologist, and has been involved with such teams for over 15 years. He offers these three tips:

  • Define your team’s mission and purpose clearly
  • Do more with what you already have by finding opportunities for greater collaboration between departments that provide resources and services to students
  • Cultivate a sense of shared purpose

Define Your Mission and Scope

Deisinger states clearly that the most important decision to be made is to define the purpose of the intervention team. There are a range of missions that teams can have, including:

  • Threat assessment — where the primary focus is on identifying possible threats to the institution
  • General violence prevention — where the team works to prevent violence acts in general, such as sexual assault, domestic violence, alcohol-related assaults, etc.
  • Student assistance — a broader focus not limited to acts of violence

The intended goal or mission of the team directly informs how it is structured, who should be on it, how big it needs to be, and what resources and services should be provided. “Defining the mission with clarity is particularly important,” Deisinger advises, “when there are multiple entities on campus charged with addressing safety issues. For example, many universities have both a student assistance team and a threat assessment team. In this case, everyone on these teams needs to be clear on what each entity is responsible for and what it isn’t responsible for.”

Deisinger warns that in the absence of the clarity, an institution runs two significant risks:

  • Each team might assume that a particular situation falls under the other’s purview
  • Equally problematic, both teams might attempt to address a situation, responding to it simultaneously but in contradictory ways and with a lack of coordination

Deisinger offers the example of Virginia Tech, which has two teams with carefully differentiated missions. The two teams coordinate to manage the volume and diversity of cases they face at a large campus. A student assistance team focuses on student needs in cases where there is no threat to the safety of the university community but where a student needs resources or counseling. A separate team focused on threat assessment addresses all threats posed to the institution and all concerns about violence towards self and others.

Additionally, Deisinger emphasizes that to maximize the effectiveness of the teams, a significant outreach component must be part of the team’s strategy. For a team to be effective, the campus community needs to know the team exists, what they are designed to do or not to do, and what happens with information that is shared with the team.

Doing More with What You Have

Deisinger suggests looking at existing assets and systems. Many institutions are already providing resources and services to students in a variety of different capacities, and you can often find low-hanging fruit simply by improving communication and collaboration among these departments. For example, strengthening the working relationships between counseling services, the dean of student’s office, and the police department can be both inexpensive and have a high impact.

For smaller campuses with fewer resources:

  • While some campuses may not have extensive on-campus resources like health services or counseling centers, Deisinger encourages institutions to think creatively about how to get these resources to the table. For example, if your campus does not have a counseling center, Deisinger suggests recruiting a faculty member, local psychologist, or employee assistance provider (with relevant training) to be part of the team to help diagnose and address the situation. Their participation could be on a consultative or ongoing basis.
  • If your campus does not have an on-campus police or security force, Deisinger recommends working with local law enforcement, or consider contracting with a security services firm to provide a consultative role in those cases in which security is at stake. It’s also critical to ensure that these outside partners understand the importance of goals you have set around both student safety and student development (as well as that of faculty and staff).

With limited resources, it’s important to think outside the box. Identify the critical needs to make the team work well and then figure out how to achieve them.

“Start with what you have and see this as a process that will improve over time, rather than something that needs to perfect at the start.”
Gene Deisinger, Virginia Tech

Cultivate a Sense of Shared Purpose

Fostering collaborative work across both campus departments and off-campus entities can be challenging. Some departments might have a very limited history of working together, and their members may hold misconceptions or even stereotypes about the work of their peers in other offices. Unless these invisible barriers are addressed, you may see ineffective working relationships, suspicion, and lack of awareness about what resources each office can — or can’t — bring to the table.

“We need to learn each other’s work styles, resources, and responsibilities. You don’t want to be learning this on the fly in the midst of a crisis.”
Gene Deisinger, Virginia Tech

Deisinger recommends bringing key individuals together and inviting a structured and candid dialogue around what challenges and difficulties each individual faces in dealing with behavior of concern. “You will likely find that different offices share similar concerns and a high awareness that things are falling between the cracks, but not a good appeciation of how we can help each other address the issues,” Deisinger notes.

He offers the example of a conversation between mental health and law enforcement professionals that focused on what challenges each faced. What emerged in the conversation was that:

  • The state training academy for law enforcement officers offered no formal training for dealing with individuals suffering from mental health issues
  • Law enforcement officers were unaware of the legal parameters for when a mental health facility can hold a subject of concern, and mental health professionals were unaware of the issues law enforcements officers face when a subject of concern is not held

In this case, progress was made on a number of points — for example, the mental health professionals offered to train the law enforcement offices in how to address and de-escalate a situation involving a subject of concern with mental health issues. And while both were bound by legal parameters, understanding the issues each faced transformed the conversation from an “us versus them” tone to one of shared investment in working through a shared problem. Both sets of individuals left the meeting with a better understanding of each other’s roles and with knowledge of what resources they could call on in the future.

“Set the tone that this collaboration is an investment in our community. Are we willing to make that investment? If so, we are only better off if we make the extra effort needed to emerge from our own silos and understand the issues from other’s perspectives. We’ll be able to handle cases more effectively and responsively.”
Gene Deisinger, Virginia Tech