Colleges increase efforts to identify violent students

January 30, 2011

Growing concern over violence on college campuses has prompted more higher education institutions to form specialized teams tasked with identifying students who pose a threat to their peers.

These threat-assessment teams have drawn more attention in the wake of this month’s shooting in Tucson following revelations that the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, was suspended from Arizona’s Pima Community College last year after the school labeled him a person of concern.

Experts say threat-assessment teams proliferated following 2007’s shooting at Virginia Tech, where school administrators saw warning signs but failed to connect them in time to stop Seung Hui Cho from killing 32 people, including himself, according to USA Today.

Since then, the number of teams has ballooned. Brett A. Sokolow, past president and founder of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association, or NaBITA, estimated that now more than 80 percent of four-year institutions and between 20 and 40 percent of two-year institutions have formed them. And two states – Virginia and Illinois – require state colleges to have them.

The teams come in many different forms and have a variety of names, from “Committee for Student Success” to “Behavioral Review Team.”

The University of North Carolina Wilmington has kept some version of a threat-assessment team since 2006. But Michael Walker, the university’s dean of students and associate vice chancellor, said the school expanded the group’s role in 2009.

Called the Student Behavior Intervention Team, the 11-member group of high-ranking university administrators meets biweekly and is charged with allocating resources towards students in need and identifying and removing potential threats from the campus community.

The team generally considers about 40 cases each semester, Walker said, though a majority are low-risk students who, while they do not pose a danger, are experiencing difficulties such as depression or stress and require help.

Seldom does the team find a student at risk of inflicting harm, Walker said. But when it happens, the group works with the students’ parents to voluntarily withdraw them from school so they can receive treatment.

But the ubiquity of these teams has raised concerns among civil rights groups about whether college administrators will abuse them for their own ends. These critics often point to what happened at Valdosta State Universityin Georgia, where a federal judge ruled in September 2010 that the former president wrongfully withdrew a student, primarily because he publicly opposed the university’s plans to construct a parking garage, according to court documents.

“Behavior intervention teams tend to spill over too much into bias intervention teams,” said Adam Kissel, the vice president of programs for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group which charged itself with defending civil liberties on college campuses. “A key question is how are schools are defining a threat or a risk?”

Saunie K. Schuster, NaBITA’s president, said these groups often intervene at an early stage to head off the escalation of violent behavior.

“The purpose is not to harm or deter but to provide a safe learning environment,” she said, adding that the teams function to “address those issues that pose a threat to the safety and security of the person or institution.”

Most cases are referred by faculty or staff who notice something unusual about a student’s behavior. Having a mechanism to compile information about at-risk students allows school administrators to connect the dots in time to stop potential violence.

That is what happened at Pima Community College, where the Student Behavior Assessment Committee raised alarms about Loughner, 22, after he caused multiple disruptions at school, according to USA Today.

In September 2010, campus police found a YouTube video showing Loughner calling the college unconstitutional, among other claims.

Loughner voluntarily withdrew from school in October, with the college requiring that he receive mental health clearance before returning to classes. But months later, Loughner was charged in the Jan. 8 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson.

After the shooting, Pima emerged as a litmus test for threat assessment teams across the country. The school faced judgement by critics who argued that Loughner’s suspension pushed an already disturbed man over the edge. But others, like NaBITA, contended the suspension highlighted the assessment team’s effectiveness and the school acted appropriately to protect the campus community.

While acknowledging that threat assessment teams could be abused, officials said mechanisms were in place to prevent a team from overstepping its authority. Also, the teams keep their dealings highly confidential to protect students’ privacy.

Cape Fear Community College has not created a formal threat-assessment team, but students exhibiting risky patterns of behavior can be reported to the Student Development Office and referred to counseling, said spokesman David Hardin. That office also holds disciplinary power and can suspend ill-behaved students.

But the state’s 58 college campuses are expected to soon have the capability to deny admission to prospective students who campus administrators consider a threat. Linda Weiner, the system’s vice president of engagement and strategic innovation, said the proposal by the community college board marks an effort to balance the system’s open-door policy with campus safety.

Although the proposal has to go through a review process, it could be implemented as soon as April, though any student denied admission has the option to appeal.

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concerns about the proposal. Sarah Preston, the policy director for ACLU North Carolina, said the advocacy organization is worried the proposal is broad and vague and could be applied arbitrarily. The organization plans to work with the state to help ensure the policy does not discriminate against any segment of the population.

The strengthening of security comes as experts note more troubling violence on college campuses nationwide. Walker, of the intervention team association, said that in 2010’s fall semester alone, the association counted an unprecedented 40 on-campus shootings.

“We’re shocked by it,” he said.