THE MAGAZINE

Hard Lessons

By Laura Spadanuta

Virginia Tech has developed a Web portal with emergency messages for authorized individuals to send. The portal walks the user through a series of steps. The person would first put in information such as which campus the message is for and the delivery mechanisms to use (in an emergency, the default is to use them all).

There are about 30 templates of scenarios to provide a starting point for the notification. The template provides language appropriate to each type of incident and delivery mechanism; for example, e-mails might be longer and more conversational than text messages. The messages go out simultaneously. The language for the templates has been refined, and new templates have been created as drills and real-life emergencies have yielded lessons.

Threat Assessment Teams

Virginia Tech shooter Cho had behavioral issues that professors and mental health professionals knew about. After the fact, there were discussions about whether he should have been monitored more closely or removed from campus before the tragedy. It is impossible to know whether anything might have prevented that situation, but schools are trying to do what they can to focus on potentially risky situations—or people in need of assistance on or outside of their campuses—and to spot red flags that might signal trouble ahead.

The Virginia Tech incident led to a state law that requires colleges to have threat assessment teams for just that purpose. When that law came about, Virginia Tech was already putting together its behavioral threat assessment program.

Dewey Cornell, clinical psychologist and professor of education at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, thinks colleges traditionally have spent more resources on dealing with a tragedy than preventing it, so he sees the rise of threat assessment teams as a positive change. “I really think more emphasis should be given to prevention than just to crisis response,” he says.

Virginia Tech has spent a lot of time on refining its behavioral threat assessment team. The team consists of various individuals from different departments and disciplines.

Gene Deisinger joined Virginia Tech as threat management director in 2009. He says the school threat management team evaluates a few hundred cases a year, most of which are closed if no threat is perceived.

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