THE MAGAZINE

Hard Lessons

By Laura Spadanuta

If it is determined that an applicant has a history of violent offenses or other potentially disruptive behavior, for example, he or she would be referred to the threat assessment team. The team will then assess whether it’s possible to have a support plan to help that person be successful at the school. If the team doesn’t believe that’s possible, the applicant will not be permitted to attend the school. But, says Deisinger, “We recommend denial of very few applications.”

Red flags. The school also tries to provide some guidance to the campus community with regard to what red flags they should look for. These are listed on Virginia Tech’s Web site, but Deisinger emphasizes that there is no absolutely reliable list of behaviors, and all behavior must be taken in context. Just because a person was violent in the past doesn’t mean they will be in the future. Similarly, a person with no violent past might still pose a risk.

Deisinger says that simplistic ways of predicting who is going to be violent have not worked, and he doesn’t anticipate that changing. He adds that though most of the referrals to his team do not end up requiring long-term monitoring, they’re still helpful.

“One side of the equation is, is the subject of concern dangerous or significantly disruptive? Even if the answer is no, if they’re perceived that way, there’s still an issue, because others will continue to respond to them based on the perception. And so, for many of the cases, we’re not actively working the subject of concern so much as we are the persons who shared the concern,” Deisinger says. The objective is “to share to the extent it’s lawful and appropriate to do so, the information that would help mitigate their concerns.”

Deisinger adds that it’s the nature of the beast of dealing with potentially violent and disruptive behavior that it’s unlikely that any individual in the community would be in a position to know the whole story, “so we set up a process that we know will [yield] false positives, because that enables us to look at potential linkages across the institution.”

Awareness training. Schools also are seeking ways to make students comfortable with reporting any issues or concerns. At the University of Virginia, Cornell says, they hold a series of meetings with students to discuss such issues. The school also developed a Web site with videos that depict different kinds of situations where people might want to seek help.

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