Make Your Threat Assessment Team Effective: Part 2

Student with backpack

This is the second of two articles offering practical advice on making behavioral intervention teams effective. You can read the first article here.

August 18, 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 pitfalls to avoid when establishing early behavioral intervention teams or threat assessment teams. Deisinger is both a police officer and a clinical psychologist, and has been involved with such teams for over 15 years. He notes these five pitfalls that you can avoid with a little careful planning:

  • Focusing solely on increased reporting
  • Focusing only on students
  • Reinventing the wheel
  • Lack of due diligence in vetting possible vendors
  • Failing to follow up, monitor, and assess whether the initial intervention was sufficient

First Pitfall: Focusing Solely on Increased Reporting

Deisinger advises that there has been too much focus on reporting as the end goal, and notes that reporting is simply the tool to facilitate the goal, which is to improve the safety and well-being of the campus community.“We’re not just trying to get people to report everything of concern and then stop there. We want them to report their concerns, but where appropriate, also be helpful in resolving their concerns.”
Gene Deisinger, Virginia Tech

Be mindful that if your target is to prompt faculty to report concerns they have about specific students, that they don’t simply wash their hands of the situation after submitting the report. You want to avoid the “it’s not my problem anymore” feeling because the faculty member is in a position to observe continued problematic behavior or behavioral changes that suggest the situation is improving. The faculty is also in a position to step in and refer campus resources. That can be much less threatening than simply reporting negative behavior without ever telling the student. Deisinger cautions, however, that you need to tread carefully — you don’t want to ask faculty to engage in interventions beyond their skill level. It’s about the tone and fostering a caring orientation.

Focusing on case management and effective, collaborative intervention — and not simply on reporting concerns — also helps to counter the anxiety some at your institution may have if they fear you are taking a “big brother” approach. “If our focus is on reporting,” Deisinger warns, “we’re just all snitching on each other. Move toward offering more caring-oriented responses.”

Second Pitfall: Focusing Only on Students

Deisinger feels that “there is often an inappropriate, limited focus on students who might pose a threat, which loses sight of the fact that faculty, staff, and visitors can also pose dangers to the community.” Institutions should instead favor integrated teams that can address all threats posed to the college or university.

He offers the example of the Virginia Tech approach, which actually consists of two teams to manage the volume and diversity of cases they face. A student assistance (CARE) team focuses on student needs — resource needs that do not constitute a threat to the university — such as housing or counseling. A second team is focused on threat assessment and addresses all threats posed to the institution, such as concerns about violence toward self and others.

Third Pitfall: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Deisinger points out that “our cousins in the K-12 arena on the threat assessment side are a decade ahead of us … they faced these challenges after Columbine.” In the 1980s, the focus on postal shootings led to a sharp increase in the number of workplace violence intervention programs. These integrated models go back a long way. And there are also a number of long-standing higher-ed models that institutions can look to, including Iowa State University, Arizona State University, the University of Maryland, and The Ohio State University.

Fourth Pitfall: Not Doing Your Due Diligence with Vendors

Since the tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007, and the following incident at Northern Illinois University, safety issues at college campuses have become a cottage industry, with many vendors claiming expertise in the field. Vet vendors carefully, and test their resources and experience. Deisinger notes that “there are some things out there that are pretty flashy but just don’t make any sense.”

In this December 2010 blog post, Gene Deisinger and Marisa Randazzo suggest five questions to ask when vetting a vendor:

  • “How much direct experience do you have in investigating, evaluating, and/or managing individual threat cases?”
  • “Give me examples of the different types of cases you have handled, and what you found that worked effectively to address some of those situations”
  • “Tell me about your most challenging case, or about an intervention that did not work well and what you did to resolve that situation”
  • “What will your references say is your greatest strength? Your biggest weakness?”
  • “Who can verify your credentials?”

Fifth Pitfall: Failing to Follow Up

“Threat assessment and management is a process, not an event,” Deisinger cautions. “Campuses are often effective at gathering information and making an initial intervention, but then neglect to monitor, follow up, and assess whether the initial intervention was sufficient. And for the more complex and dangerous cases, a single intervention is unlikely to be sufficient.”

The solution: adopt a truly multidisciplinary approach. Being able to bring different entities to the table from across your institution means that you will also be able to bring access varied information sources to help monitor a situation. “Your team’s job,” Deisinger suggests, “is to bring all the resources and information channels you have together into one room — and then continue checking in over time until the situation no longer meets the threat threshold defined by the mission of your team.”