Colleges and universities are unique environments. Students and faculty alike see campuses as free and open places that celebrate difference and abhor conformity. This makes for a difficult world in which to encourage people to report concerns about each other to a higher authority, such as a behavioral threat analysis team.
Administrators can, however, reduce that hesitancy through public education campaigns that use educational and training sessions, combined with posters, mailers, e-mails, and Web pages. These programs should communicate the team’s sensitivity to confidentiality and discretion, emphasizing that the team respects the privacy of both the person submitting the tip and the subject of the tip.
Any educational campaign must drive home the important role that the students and faculty play in providing information. Officials should stress that students and faculty who pass along concerns, however small, may help save lives. They should also stress that the system may not work without that input. The message the team must convey to the campus, says
Deisinger, is that “we have a process that works well with your help.”
Arizona State University (ASU) holds educational and training sessions several times a year for students, faculty, and staff. All new students and parents are asked to attend a session during orientation to discuss how to report concerns, as are new employees when they come on board. The sessions are not mandatory, though, except for resident assistants and hall directors. “Because they live among the students,” Commander Richard Wilson of the Arizona State University Police Department explains, “they have the broadest exposure to identifying students dealing with academic, social, family, or personal stressors. Early recognition allows early intervention and can prevent things from escalating.”
ASU also maintains Web sites and Web links that provide further information on handling at-risk persons on campus. In addition, the school occasionally sends out e-mails reminding the university community to be on the lookout for at-risk students during times of high stress, such as during midterms and finals.
The goal of these outreach efforts is to make the campus community, especially students, comfortable reporting abnormal or threatening behavior to campus leaders. Sometimes making people more comfortable reporting concerns comes down to semantics, as Wilson learned during one session for faculty. During the gathering, team members were teaching professors how to initiate a threat assessment action by filling out an online complaint form to the dean of students.
A senior professor stood up and told team members that most faculty members would never fill out a complaint form, because the word “complaint” made the form seem negative. He suggested calling them “incident reports” instead.
“That was very insightful,” says Wilson. The team took the professor’s advice and revised the form.
The most important faculty members to train and educate in threat awareness, however, are teaching assistants, says Wilson. “Teaching assistants are critical because they have more contact with students,” he says. Moreover, as they are in a quasi-peer position, he notes, “they are more apt to pick up on leakage or observe behavioral changes.”
Not surprisingly, the Virginia Tech tragedy has helped to change attitudes about sharing information or reporting a suspicion that a person might be at risk. “If there’s anything good to come out of Virginia Tech,” says Assistant Chief of Police Clifford Lutz of Pennsylvania State University, “it’s that you have the opportunity to get buy-in from all the stakeholders, because everyone realizes how catastrophic one of these types of incidents can be to a university community.”
But as Virginia Tech fades from the collective memory, the former reluctance to report suspicions may return. It is, therefore, important for public awareness and education initiatives to continue.