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Karen Hitchcock - Threat Assessment: The New Normal at our Nation's Universities

Horrific criminal acts against innocent young boys at Penn State;  the multiple deaths and injuries resulting from the tragic shootings by a student on the campus of Virginia Tech; the murder-suicide of a University of Idaho professor and his graduate student; and now, the incomprehensible acts of violence in Aurora, Colorado by a former student from the Anshutz Medical Campus of The University of Colorado-Denver…all of these tragic events share one thing in common: they involved acts by individuals who were members of a university at the time of the incidents, or immediately prior to them. This, of course, raises the question of whether or not timely actions by the university could have prevented these tragedies, especially since, in every case, concerns regarding the perpetrators of these events had been raised at an earlier time with key individuals at the involved universities.  At Penn State, officials as high as the President are said to have been aware of incidents of sexual abuse by a staff member; at Virginia Tech, the student who carried out the shootings had been identified as a possibly dangerous individual by a faculty member familiar with him and his writings who subsequently reported her concerns to her superiors;  the murder victim at the University of Idaho had informed university officials of the threatening actions of her ex-boyfriend, a professor at the university and, ultimately, her murderer; and, as it now appears, James Holmes, the accused multiple murderer of so many in the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, was actually reported by his university-employed psychiatrist to the university’s threat assessment team weeks before the event.

With all these early warnings, what went wrong?  Why weren’t at least some of these tragedies averted?   In all of these situations, the major question which arises is what should be reported to law enforcement, and when.   In the NPR Report entitled, “To Prevent a Tragedy, How Much Can A School Do?   Tovia Smith discusses the over-reporting which can result from a “panicked reaction” to incidents at other campuses, as well as the fact that there is no simple prediction strategy where behavior “x” will always lead to dangerous or fatal situations.  Human behavior does not lend itself to such a formulaic approach.

Following the Virginia Tech tragedy where 32 people were killed, many universities established so-called “threat assessment teams”, groups of individuals who evaluate information brought before them regarding possible threats to campus safety.  The University of Colorado had such a group which actually was founded by Dr. Lynne Fenton, the psychiatrist treating accused murderer, James Holmes.   Indeed, Dr. Fenton allegedly reported her concerns regarding Mr. Holmes to this very body a full six weeks prior to the shootings.  While little is currently known regarding the nature of her concerns, it has been alleged that the Team did nothing in response to this information using as their rationale the fact that Mr. Holmes had withdrawn from his graduate program on the campus and, hence, was no longer under their jurisdiction - a rationale which defies explanation.  Indeed, as one commentator noted at the time of the shooting, his act of withdrawing from the University should have led to an even higher level of concern by this university body and certainly would have warranted notification of local law enforcement.

Threat assessment is fraught with difficulty and uncertainty.   As stated in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “no one has a crystal ball for predicting when a student who makes a threat, or shows signs of disturbing behavior, might actively carry out a violent crime.” Universities clearly need to be vigilant and have a rigorous, frequently reviewed risk assessment process in place. And, at the most fundamental level, universities need to provide support structures of peer students, faculty and staff who remain closely engaged with each and every student on campus. Distressed and troubled students need to be identified and supported, especially given the stress-filled environment of a college campus.  Early awareness and early interventions by caring members of the entire university community may well be the most effective strategy to avert the kinds of tragedies exemplified by Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colorado.  Threat assessment teams, properly constituted with professionals experienced in identifying high risk situations, are essential. But, at the end of the day, educating all members of the community to their own individual responsibility to be observant and supportive of friends and colleagues, as well as willing to report concerns to campus officials and law enforcement, may be the most effective strategy of all in averting future tragedies on our nation’s campuses.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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