SM Archives: The Importance of Behavioral Threat Assessment Teams

By Matthew Harwood

Yesterday Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, released 51 pages of campus police reports from last year that detail Jared L. Loughner's disturbing behavior in the run up to his suspension that September. The reports from five separate incidents  contain student and teacher descriptions of Loughner as a "dark personality," who was "creepy" and "very hostile." While the reports no doubt will fuel debate about whether the community college could have done anything to prevent Loughner's alleged murder of six people and the grave wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday, The New York Times reports that the school did take action to identify other potential threats on campus the same month Loughner was suspended.

The college overhauled its procedures for dealing with disruptive students last year. As part of a revision to the code of conduct, it introduced a Student Behavior Assessment Committee, a three-member team that includes the assistant vice chancellor for student development, the chief or deputy chief of the campus police and a clinical psychologist from outside the college.

The team meets as needed to respond to students who have acted violently or threatened violence, or who may pose a threat to themselves or others. It came into existence in September, the same month Mr. Loughner was suspended following the five disruptive incidents reported to campus police.

A campus official involved in setting up the behavior committee, Charlotte Fugett, president of one of the college’s five campuses, would not say whether the committee heard Mr. Loughner’s case.

As Security Management reported in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, behavioral threat assessment teams are a best practice for schools looking to identify students, faculty, and staff who exhibit violent tendencies. The 2008 article, posted below, gives an overview of what behavioral threat assessments are, which professionals are vital to the team, and how to get campus buy-in so people are comfortable reporting at-risk persons so that those who need help receive it.

Teaming Up to Reduce Risk

By Matthew Harwood

When a former Iowa State University employee applied for a weapon permit late last year in another jurisdiction, the school had cause for concern. The employee had recently been fired for behavior that negatively affected his work and the work of others. Fortunately, Commander Gene Deisinger, a member of the university police’s Special Operations Unit and a licensed psychologist, had already reached out to the local county sheriff’s office, where he knew some officers. He had asked that they contact him if the former employee applied for a weapon permit, explaining that his threat assessment team checked the subject’s background and found worrisome signs that the person could pose a threat to himself or others. 

Due to Deisinger’s proactive approach, the sheriff’s office kept him in the loop. He was informed when the former employee applied for a gun permit, and Deisinger was told that, based on information the sheriff’s office had locally, the application was denied.

Informed of this development, Deisinger’s threat assessment team members could reassess the risk. They asked themselves, “Is there a nexus of threat to our locale?” With their subject unable to procure a weapon, and no evidence of other access to weapons or changes in the situation, they decided that there was no need to adjust security measures on campus at that time, though they would continue to monitor the case.

Iowa State’s program has been in place for years, but other campuses are only now recognizing the potential benefits of threat assessment teams. They are acting in response to the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy in which a disturbed student, Seung Hui Cho, murdered 32 people and then killed himself. 

These teams, sometimes referred to as threat management teams or critical analysis teams, provide schools with a formal mechanism for analyzing sensitive information on troubled persons to assess whther there is a threat and to develop a plan of response.

(To finish reading "Teaming Up to Reduce Risk" from the April 2008 issue of Security Management, click here.)

♦ Photo of suspect Jared L. Loughner by dybender/Flickr


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