Colleges balance security, scrutiny

January 20, 2011

They meet behind college campuses’ closed doors, discuss students in complete confidentiality and often investigate in secret.

But suddenly, these teams are dealing with a bright, national spotlight and questions about the effectiveness of "threat assessment" or "behavior intervention" efforts that bring together campus officials to check on students who might pose a threat to themselves or others.

The teams sprouted on U.S. campuses after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, but are under new scrutiny after a reportedly troubled former college student opened fire in a Tucson shopping mall, killing 6 and wounding 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Before the Virginia Tech shooting about 20 campuses had them, according to the National Behavior Intervention Team Association. Now, about 1,600 do.

That includes Pima Community College, where Arizona shooting suspect Jared L. Loughner was once a student. Although the college won’t say whether its team flagged Loughner, its response to his strange outbursts has launched a discussion about how colleges handle troubled students and the limits of such policies.

Colleges with teams say they work.

"There are many cases where we’ve really defused situations that could have become violent," said Jerry Rinehart, vice provost for student affairs at the University of Minnesota. "We’ve probably saved lives."

In Arizona, "they were able to protect the campus," he noted. "But hands are tied once a person is no longer part of the student community."

Some teams meet monthly, some weekly. The U’s team has 25 members, while a two-year college’s might have three.

All rely on reports from faculty, staff, students and, occasionally, parents. A small percentage of their interventions end in discipline. The U’s team has dealt with 111 cases over the past two years. Of those, just three resulted in expulsion or suspension.

Every Wednesday at 10:45 a.m., about 10 people gather at Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical in Winona Sometimes, that meeting wraps up in five minutes. No threats, no recommendations to look into a student who acted out in class. But if finals are near, the meeting could last hours.

"You can almost predict the cycles," said Nate Emerson, vice president for student affairs.

Three years ago, a student flagged by the team showed up at Emerson’s office and threatened to go get a gun. After a meeting with the student, the college suspended him for 18 months. He could return but only with clearance from a psychologist.

That’s much like Pima’s response to Loughner. After a series of incidents, they suspended him in October. He could return but would need clearance from a psychologist.

Emerson sees the similarities and is thankful nothing worse happened at Southeast.

"I increased my life insurance," he said, laughed, then paused. "I can joke about it. But I actually did that, with a wife and two kids. If someone wants to kill you, they can do it.

"It did bother me."

Campuses are "drowning in incidents," said Brett Sokolow, past president of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association.

Growing mental health needs

More students are coming to campus with serious psychological conditions, national numbers show. In Minnesota, about 29.8 percent of students reported at least one mental health condition diagnosed during their lifetime, according to a 2010 survey of 18 campuses by Boynton Health Service. Depression is the most common.

"An increasing number of students are coming in with mental health conditions that in the past probably would have prevented them from going to college," Rinehart said.

In fact, many behavior intervention teams believe that they most often prevent not a shooting, but a suicide. "That’s the biggest threat that underlies these situations," Rinehart said.

Many students referred to intervention teams end up in mental health counseling.

But those services are expensive to provide, and many universities — including the U — are struggling to control growing wait lists. Most community colleges, like Pima, don’t provide such services. Right now, "the students who need it most get the least," Sokolow said. "That has to change."

Using funding from a new student fee, Minneapolis Community and Technical College is now partnering with the U’s health services to offer mental health services on campus. Similarly, the Southeast Technical College’s campus in Winona partners with its neighbor, Winona State University, for health and wellness.

Balancing a student’s rights

Although universities brag that their intervention teams go well beyond high-risk situations, some free speech advocates find that disconcerting.

Say a student is referred to such a team for arguing with a professor. That incident, added to a database, could follow that student for the rest of her time on campus.

"It’s the kind of thing you might compare with the FBI files," said Adam Kissel, vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "People who express themselves in perfectly legal and legitimate ways are being recorded."

A student dismissed from Valdosta State University in Georgia sued, saying the former president used an intervention team to seek his expulsion not because he was dangerous but because he opposed the construction of two parking garages on campus. This fall, a federal judge agreed.

But colleges say their teams use their power with great respect and confidentiality.

"We’re not just putting a flag on these people," said Lt. Troy Buhta, a member of the U’s team as well as its police force. "We’re trying to get them the help they might need."

At Winona State, the team keeps no database, said Karen Johnson, dean of students. "Often, these students don’t rise to the level of anything that needs to be documented.

"Our main concern is for the student’s welfare."

At first, Winona State kept its intervention team quiet. But because the team depends on referrals, "this needs to be known," Johnson said. It now advertises on campuses and offers workshops for the faculty.

"What we’re doing is a very important task."