Schools up efforts to ID at-risk students

March 6, 2011

Once a week, a team of Seton Hill University staff members sits down to review student behavior.

A resident adviser may have noticed that Jane never goes to class. Perhaps a professor has seen the quality of John’s work declining.

The Crisis Intervention Team looks at whether these are isolated events or signs that a student has more serious issues.

"We’re trying to get in and get connected with the students on the front side of the problem and get to them as soon as possible before the problem gets a lot larger than it is," said team leader Terri Bassi-Cook, director of Counseling, Disability & Health Services.

Behavioral intervention or threat assessment teams have proliferated since the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech that left 32 dead.

Gunman Seung-Hui Cho, a student, showed early signs that he was troubled, and a governor’s report determined that an intervention team may have prevented the tragedy.

Most colleges and universities have such teams, though only two states – Virginia and Illinois – require them at state universities, according to the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association.

"The idea of an institution having a team, a designated entity that is specifically charged with addressing behavioral issues is so important," said Saunie Schuster, president of the organization. "We’re really encouraging our teams to recognize the continuum of behavior from the sort of dysfunctional to disproportionate behavior."

A team at Pima Community College in Arizona raised alarms about student Jared Lee Loughner, accused of killing six people and wounding 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson in January. Pima officials suspended Loughner because of disruptive behavior and would not readmit him until he had a mental health evaluation.

Some have questioned why the college did not go further, but local college leaders say their teams do their best to identify at-risk students and get them help.

"Their mission is to do whatever possible to prevent crimes of violence," Duquesne University spokeswoman Bridget Fare said of the school’s Campus Community Risk Team. "You gather as much information as you can and do the best with the information you have at the time."

Most teams are comprised of individuals from across the college community – from academics and those in residence life to counselors and public safety officials.

"One of the biggest piece of feedback that arose from Virginia Tech was that people on campus had no idea a student had surfaced on multiple people’s radar," said Shawn Brooks, associate dean of students at the University of Pittsburgh and chairman of its Care for At Risk Students team.

Teams attempt to reach out to troubled students before they reach the breaking point.

"As human beings, we don’t always know when we’re in trouble. We have our own defense mechanisms, and it often takes another person to say, ‘Are you OK? I think you might be depressed,’ " said Donna Imhoff, president of the North Campus at the Community College of Allegheny County.

CCAC’s online system allows anyone in the college community to file a report about a behavioral issue. The reports are reviewed by the dean of student development on each campus, Imhoff said. The deans take action immediately, whether it is simply talking to the student, recommending counseling or even suspension. Each campus Behavioral Intervention Team reviews cases biweekly.

"We’re looking for ways to piece together all of the kind of bread crumbs that are spread along the way by a student who is beginning to show signs of distress," Imhoff said.

California University of Pennsylvania’s Threat Response Assessment and Intervention Team is an outlet for faculty, staff and students who are concerned about another person’s behavior.

"It gives us an opportunity to intervene and assist the individual versus just a pure discipline or criminal act," said Tim Susick, associate vice president for student affairs and team chairman.

Westmoreland County Community College’s Behavioral Intervention Team, which began about two years ago, focuses on overall strategies rather than individual students.

"We’ve had more issues with the kind of disruptive behavior of calling out in class, not raising their hand to ask a question (or) to offer comments, and thought that because we were seeing a little bit more of this, we needed to develop some strategies before anything worse began to happen," said Carol Rush, vice president for academic affairs and student services.

The team meets quarterly to review issues and to develop strategies, including faculty and staff training.

Officials said they take student privacy seriously, but changes to that law since the Virginia Tech incident have given them greater latitude to reach out to parents and others.

"If we know that a student has a particular problem, we might alert anybody that might have contact with that student that there are some issues that they might want to keep an eye on and to please let us know if you notice anything unique or different about him," Rush said.

Some civil rights organizations say the teams take their missions too far and often unjustly impede on individuals’ rights.

Adam Kissel, vice president of programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, notes that there have been instances when students and professors have been punished for expressing themselves.

"We take exception to the idea that there is a straightforward continuum from someone showing anger in a specific situation to someone being a mass murderer on campus," Kissel said. "Putting innocent outbursts into a campus database is a chilling way to police discourse on campus."

Schuster said training is important to keep teams from overreaching. "It should never be seen as a vehicle to quash speech or quash passionate expression," she said.

There is a line between free speech and problematic behavior, college leaders say. "When it is at a point where it is affecting an ability to carry on a class and it’s affecting other students in a negative way, it needs to be reported," CCAC’s Imhoff said.

Pitt’s Brooks said that while speech is protected, behaviors are not.

"It’s not the matter of what the student is saying, it’s have they been acting aggressively toward the professor or other students? Are they engaging in speech which leads us to believe they are having a break in reality?" he said.

Imhoff said officials at Pima did the right thing.

"They did what they should do," she said. "Unless the person is in that moment a danger to themselves or others, your hands are pretty well tied."