Colleges and universities can learn a lot from the U.S. government when it comes to campus threat assessment and violence prevention. From the 1990s Secret Service study of attacks on public officials to the most recent FBI study of active-shooter incidents, the findings have implications for behavioral intervention and campus incident response.
“Preventing Assassination: A Monograph: Secret Service Exceptional Case Study Project” details the findings from analyzing 83 attempted attacks on public officials that occurred from 1949 to 1996. Key findings from this report include:
- Violence is the end result of an understandable process of thoughts and behavior.
- People who engage in violence don’t fit a single or specific profile.
- There are often identifiable behaviors of concern exhibited prior to the act of violence, including the planning and preparation.
The resulting implication of this study is that many acts of violence are potentially preventable. After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s violent acts at Columbine High School in 1999, the same question was asked about violence in the school setting. “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States,” a study by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education, reviewed the behaviors leading up to 37 school shootings occurring between 1974 and 2000. The same themes emerged, including:
- Attacks are rarely sudden or impulsive.
- Most of the time, someone knew about the idea or plan before it happened.
- Most attackers exhibited a behavior that caused concern for others before the attack.
So why don’t people report these concerns? The answers are simple:
- No one wants to believe their friend or their son or daughter could be capable of such violence.
- There isn’t a singular, definitive profile, predictor or cause of violence. This is illustrated in a student bystander study by the U.S. Secret Service, “Prior Knowledge of Potential School-Based Violence: Information Students Learn May Prevent a Targeted Attack,” that found that people often misjudge the likelihood, immediacy and actuality of an attack, so they don’t report it.
Understand the history
The Virginia Tech incident in 2007 became the deadliest shooting on a college campus since 1966, when Charles Whitman killed 14 people and wounded many more at the University of Texas-Austin in what’s now known as the “clock-tower shooting.” Then in 2008, the violence at Northern Illinois University led officials at colleges and universities throughout the country to ask, “Are we next?”
Campus threat assessment and behavioral intervention teams emerged, attempting to connect the dots to understand student behavior across the silos that frequently exist at academic institutions. The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment & Management Teams emerged as a resource to help campuses put the threat assessment research into practice through the creation of multidisciplinary behavioral intervention teams. These teams are designed to identify behaviors that reflect where someone falls on the escalation of violence spectrum (from ideation to implementation).
“Campus Attacks: Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Education,” published in 2010 by the U.S. Secret Service, reviewed 272 incidents of targeted deadly violence that occurred at colleges and universities, ranging from sexual violence to gunshots. Most of the time, the violence comes from a member of the campus community. The triggers for violence vary. But in the current national landscape focused on sexual violence on college campuses, it’s worth noting that more than half of the incidents were triggered by an intimate relationship, refused advances, obsession or sexual violence. Other triggers included retaliation, academic stress/failure, bias and workplace dismissal.
Follow key steps
As our campuses strive every day to answer that dreaded question “Are we next?” consider these key guiding concepts:
- Create a culture of reporting. Looking back at the behaviors leading to the Columbine shooting or other incidents, we can identify warning behaviors. However, would we each report the behavior if it involved one of our own friends, students or children? That’s why we need to make it easy for our campus community members to report concerns, and build trust by sharing information with reporting parties whenever you can. While the team’s risk assessment model should remain confidential, the campus community needs to know what kinds of things to report, what will happen with the information, and what will happen to the person of concern. Your team’s eyes are the campus community. Without referrals, you’re blind to what’s happening on your campus.
- Get the right people at the right table at the right time. Once you learn of a concern, arrange for the best people you have to investigate and review it. While there’s no “right” number, effective teams generally include four to seven members to ensure multiple perspectives and timely action. Consider ad-hoc meetings or a core and extended team if you have a larger campus or team. Quality training and use of a mutually understood risk assessment model should ensure that if only a few team members convene, then decisions should still be made as if the whole team made them.
- Focus on prevention, not prediction. Don’t try to determine which one of your highest-risk cases might be the one that actually results in violence. Once you determine someone has a risk level for violence, take appropriate steps to intervene to lower the risk no matter how high or low that risk seems. This is where the team also supports the overall institutional mission of student success and completion.
- Balance research and campus context in decision-making. Use the team to evaluate behaviors, risk factors and protective/supportive factors impacting an individual, and use a consistent model based on research to guide investigations, evaluate information, and determine a level of risk and any appropriate interventions.
- Intervene before a threat. If the team is spending all its time on high-level-threat cases, or if the team chooses to meet only once or twice a year, there isn’t enough time being spent on the low-level cases such as argumentative or isolated students. Ideally, teams spend most of the time deciding whether the behavior is simply an isolated concern or whether it’s an indicator that the person poses a low threat for violence. This often means a lot of case management and follow-up, rather than a lot of detailed investigations.
- Don’t try to exist in a vacuum. Just as The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment & Management Teams notes, the process is about threat assessment and management. Violence is a process, not a snapshot. Keep good records. Follow up on leads and confirm your interventions are effectively managing the threat. Employ monitoring strategies to make sure certain individuals don’t rise back to a threat level. Take the campus into the context of the larger society, considering when to alert someone outside the campus about a possible threat, especially if you’re separating a student or employee from your campus.
Even though we often ponder the question “Are we next?” the reality is that we must ask it again every day and after every new incident that occurs throughout the country. Even the FBI recognizes that “[o]ur success will always be hard to quantify, since success is defined as the lack of an event,” as stated by Andre Simons, a supervisory special agent with the FBI, in “Why Mass Shootings Keep Happening: A Radical New Look at Mass Shooters. Why They Do It and How to Stop Them.”
While we continue daily efforts to prevent violence on college campuses, we can take solace in the 2013 “Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention & Policy, APA Panel of Experts Report,” which found that behavioral threat assessment and management teams are “the most effective tool currently available to prevent workplace violence or insider threats.”
Although we may not be able to fully quantify our success, there’s a certain measure of success found in being able to sleep at night and come to work ready to ask the question through an intentional campus process based in government research and strategies.
Check out threat assessment resources
—Compiled by Laura Bennett