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Apr 14 2008

Can We Prevent the Next Shooting?

By Austin W.G. Morton, WashingtonPost.com

Forty. That’s the death tally for 10 months’ worth of shootings at universities. Arguably, three more – the number of student shooters – could be added to the total; although, whether they are included depends on whom you ask.

Since the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech, three fatal shootings occurred on various college campuses around the United States: Delaware State University, Louisiana Technical College and Northern Illinois University. The cost in human lives is equivalent to that of one person per week.

We can be thankful for the fact that the death toll in each of these subsequent shootings never reached double digits. Universities and institutions of higher learning across the nation have taken a lesson in campus security from Virginia Tech. However, do we chalk up the difference between 32 Hokies and five Huskies to increased safety measures or simply fate?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but I do know that you can’t stop crazy. Emergency action plans, alert systems and precautionary measures aside, it’s virtually impossible to predict the behavior of a mentally-disturbed individual, especially someone who has rationalized and plotted the killing of innocent people in his/her self-created reality.

I know this because I lived down the hall from one such person, Seung-Hui Cho. As Cho’s resident advisor in the spring of 2007, I saw him somewhat regularly and interacted with him on more than one occasion. Although I acknowledged his loner tendencies, I never would have guessed that he was capable of such violence, as we witnessed on April 16.

That said, I do advocate the adoption of comprehensive risk-assessment plans by university health centers. If at-risk students are identified early on, given the help they need and continually monitored, then perhaps the next April 16, Sept. 21, Feb. 8 or Feb. 14 can be prevented.

For now, each of our grief-stricken communities is left to heal. Though we have our differences, our pain unites us and perhaps makes us stronger. We continue to endure the same struggles and ask the same questions, all the while vowing never to forget.

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Apr 14 2008

School Security: Teaming Up to Reduce Risk

By Matthew Harwood, SecurityManagement.com

Universities are using threat assessment teams to help identify at-risk students and keep them from harming themselves or others.

When a former Iowa State University employee applied for a weapon permit late last year in another jurisdiction, the school had cause for concern. The employee had recently been fired for behavior that negatively affected his work and the work of others. Fortunately, Commander Gene Deisinger, a member of the university police’s Special Operations Unit and a licensed psychologist, had already reached out to the local county sheriff’s office, where he knew some officers. He had asked that they contact him if the former employee applied for a weapon permit, explaining that his threat assessment team checked the subject’s background and found worrisome signs that the person could pose a threat to himself or others.

Due to Deisinger’s proactive approach, the sheriff’s office kept him in the loop. He was informed when the former employee applied for a gun permit, and Deisinger was told that, based on information the sheriff’s office had locally, the application was denied.

Informed of this development, Deisinger’s threat assessment team members could reassess the risk. They asked themselves, “Is there a nexus of threat to our locale?” With their subject unable to procure a weapon, and no evidence of other access to weapons or changes in the situation, they decided that there was no need to adjust security measures on campus at that time, though they would continue to monitor the case.

Iowa State’s program has been in place for years, but other campuses are only now recognizing the potential benefits of threat assessment teams. They are acting in response to the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy in which a disturbed student, Seung Hui Cho, murdered 32 people and then killed himself.

These teams, sometimes referred to as threat management teams or critical analysis teams, provide schools with a formal mechanism for analyzing sensitive information on troubled persons to assess whether there is a threat and to develop a plan of response.

In the Beginning

The concept of threat assessment teams is not new. The first behavioral threat assessment unit was created inside the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1989 by then Captain Bob Martin. Not long after, the idea found its way onto college and university campuses, says Martin, who is now vice president of Gavin de Becker and Associates, a leading threat assessment and management firm.

Some of the more prominent universities that adopted the approach include Arizona State, Iowa State, Pennsylvania State, and the University of Maryland. Each of these schools shared similar advice about how to establish effective programs. Their suggestions track recommendations from the Virginia Tech task force and from other private sector behavioral analysis experts interviewed for this article. Key issues include how to form a team, how to raise awareness, and how to work a case until it is neutralized.

Team Formation

Team members must bring to the table the right spectrum of skills. They should be recruited from across the campus community to make the team as representational as possible. But team members must not only be knowledgeable; they must also be senior level personnel with the authority to take action. Anyone selected to serve on a behavioral threat assessment team should be “at a level where they can commit or make a decision for their organization,” says Martin.

Virginia Tech had no formal threat assessment team, but it did have what it called the Care Team, responsible for identifying and helping students with problems. That team, however, lacked a representative from the Virginia Tech Police Department.

As a result, the Care Team had no knowledge that Cho had been warned twice against stalking, “that he had threatened suicide, that a magistrate had issued a temporary detention order, and that Cho had spent a night at [a psychiatric ward] as a result of such detention order,” said the Virginia Tech Review Panel’s report.

The review panel recommended that key players in any threat assessment team should include representatives from law enforcement, human resources, student and academic affairs, legal counsel, and mental health functions.

Similarly, New Jersey’s Campus Security Task Force, in its own report on campus violence, recommended assembling a team broad enough that “there is a greater possibility of identifying a student who may be displaying patterns of behavior that cause concern.”

In including a representative from human resources, the team should also keep in mind that threats don’t just come from the student body; they come from faculty and staff too, says Deisinger.

As the recent shooting at Northern Illinois University (NIU) proves, threats can also arise from former students with no history of problems. A former award-winning graduate student, Steven P. Kazmierczak, was described as “gentle” and “hard-working” with “no record of trouble.” On Valentine’s Day, he burst into a lecture hall and shot five students dead before taking his own life. Because Kazmierczak, who was no longer a student at NIU, had no known history of aggressive or violent behavior, it would have been impossible for him to have appeared on a behavioral threat assessment team’s radar, no matter how representational of the university the team was.

Once membership is determined, officials must next establish team structure. No one should have significantly more power than anyone else in the group, says Martin. That does not preclude having a leader, but because each member of the team shares the same relative status within the university, the team works best when it functions more as a democracy than as a dictatorship. “You want an environment where people are comfortable sharing their point of view,” he says.

Jim Cawood, president of Factor One and the current president of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, agrees. It’s easy to form teams, he says. “The question is once they’re drafted and sitting in a room together, do they truly get along?

Raising Awareness

Colleges and universities are unique environments. Students and faculty alike see campuses as free and open places that celebrate difference and abhor conformity. This makes for a difficult world in which to encourage people to report concerns about each other to a higher authority, such as a behavioral threat analysis team.

Administrators can, however, reduce that hesitancy through public education campaigns that use educational and training sessions, combined with posters, mailers, e-mails, and Web pages. These programs should communicate the team’s sensitivity to confidentiality and discretion, emphasizing that the team respects the privacy of both the person submitting the tip and the subject of the tip.

Any educational campaign must drive home the important role that the students and faculty play in providing information. Officials should stress that students and faculty who pass along concerns, however small, may help save lives. They should also stress that the system may not work without that input. The message the team must convey to the campus, says

Deisinger, is that “we have a process that works well with your help.”

Arizona State University (ASU) holds educational and training sessions several times a year for students, faculty, and staff. All new students and parents are asked to attend a session during orientation to discuss how to report concerns, as are new employees when they come on board. The sessions are not mandatory, though, except for resident assistants and hall directors. “Because they live among the students,” Commander Richard Wilson of the Arizona State University Police Department explains, “they have the broadest exposure to identifying students dealing with academic, social, family, or personal stressors. Early recognition allows early intervention and can prevent things from escalating.”

ASU also maintains Web sites and Web links that provide further information on handling at-risk persons on campus. In addition, the school occasionally sends out e-mails reminding the university community to be on the lookout for at-risk students during times of high stress, such as during midterms and finals.

The goal of these outreach efforts is to make the campus community, especially students, comfortable reporting abnormal or threatening behavior to campus leaders. Sometimes making people more comfortable reporting concerns comes down to semantics, as Wilson learned during one session for faculty. During the gathering, team members were teaching professors how to initiate a threat assessment action by filling out an online complaint form to the dean of students.

A senior professor stood up and told team members that most faculty members would never fill out a complaint form, because the word “complaint” made the form seem negative. He suggested calling them “incident reports” instead.

“That was very insightful,” says Wilson. The team took the professor’s advice and revised the form.

The most important faculty members to train and educate in threat awareness, however, are teaching assistants, says Wilson. “Teaching assistants are critical because they have more contact with students,” he says. Moreover, as they are in a quasi-peer position, he notes, “they are more apt to pick up on leakage or observe behavioral changes.”

Not surprisingly, the Virginia Tech tragedy has helped to change attitudes about sharing information or reporting a suspicion that a person might be at risk. “If there’s anything good to come out of Virginia Tech,” says Assistant Chief of Police Clifford Lutz of Pennsylvania State University, “it’s that you have the opportunity to get buy-in from all the stakeholders, because everyone realizes how catastrophic one of these types of incidents can be to a university community.”

But as Virginia Tech fades from the collective memory, the former reluctance to report suspicions may return. It is, therefore, important for public awareness and education initiatives to continue.

Working a Case

As tips flow in, assessment teams must determine quickly which issues “are the ones we have to pursue versus the ones we don’t have to pursue,” says Cawood.

Records. The first step in the process is fact finding. Teams should set up a centralized clearinghouse of information, with a smaller, specially trained squad to gather data. These specialists should coordinate information sharing with team stakeholders to access whatever unprotected departmental information they have on the student, faculty member, or staff member being investigated.

The team should check all available criminal, court, and driving records from all jurisdictions where the subject has lived. Because higher education students, faculty, and staff come from across the country, their background records will cross multiple jurisdictions. To that end, campus police should liaise with, or have mutual-aid agreements with, law enforcement in other jurisdictions.

Another good practice, Cawood says, is to interview the subject’s friends and associates, especially neighbors from past addresses. “This can be an excellent resource for information on disturbances, police responses, and past boy or girlfriends,” he says.

As the team collects information, the data should be entered into a centralized database so that the members can create a historical record and track any changes in an individual’s behavior over time.

Subject interviews. If a subject of interest raises enough concern within the threat assessment group, the next step is a direct interview. Depending on the context, that interview may be conducted by someone on the assessment team or by a third party selected by the team.

At Iowa State University, most of these interviews are performed by plain-clothed police officers, says Deisinger. At ASU, Wilson says, a representative from the department where the threat originated conducts the interview. Interviews at the University of Maryland are conducted by the head of the office for student conduct most of the time, simply because it is the body that has the authority to require the student to appear before it, says Jonathan Kandell, assistant director of the University of Maryland’s Counseling Center and chair of the school’s Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment Resource Group, or BETA team.

Interviews serve several purposes. Most important, perhaps, interviews allow the assessor to look the subject in the eye. Public records and collateral information, while a guide, are historical and say nothing about the present. “Only the person, live and in front of you, knows what’s happening right now in their head,” says Cawood.

“If I get a chance to sit down and talk to an individual,” he says, “who better to tell me about whether or not they are serious than the individual himself?”

The interview locale can also make a difference. At Iowa State University, Deisinger remembers a male student who threatened to kill several teachers and threatened area businesses. Deisinger and a city detective interviewed the subject at home where they observed a cache of weapons, read his writings, and discussed his grievances. They determined that he did pose a significant threat.

But because they were talking to this young man in a nonthreatening way and listening to his side of the story, Deisinger and the detective also gained his trust enough to de-escalate the situation. Without incident, Deisinger was able to confiscate the subject’s weapons, hospitalize him for psychiatric evaluation, and manage the situation into the future.

Deisinger made sure that the hospital notified him when the subject was released, allowing him to continually reassess and manage the situation. Deisinger continued to visit the subject at home, and he kept in contact with his potential targets to see whether they had been threatened again. In one instance, Deisinger even provided the subject transportation to and from one of his therapy appointments.

The interview also gives the subject a forum to air grievances. Sometimes, that’s enough. The subject vents and feels that someone is listening, that someone cares, and that he or she is not alone.

This leads to the final reason for interviews: choice points. Interviews can show a possible aggressor that there are alternatives to violence. By understanding where a subject is coming from, even if his perspective is delusional, a well-trained interviewer can move him away from violence, says Cawood.

Subject interviews, however, present one potential pitfall: Some threat assessment practitioners believe that an interview may confirm a paranoid subject’s irrational fear that the system is out to get him or her, making that person less reasonable and more aggressive.

The case manager must make that judgment call. Interviews should be considered as one of many options available when working on a case, says Martin.

Assessment and Response

After all possible information has been gathered, it is reviewed by the team to assess the level of risk and determine a course of action.

There are times when an assessment team finds that the subject is simply enraged about being charged administratively with a minor violation of a university rule. The situation then escalates because a campus bureaucrat holds strong and says he or she can’t overlook the subject’s infraction. “Sometimes,” says Martin, “we have to say, ‘Break the rule. Make the exception…if that’s what it takes to defuse a volatile situation.’”

Of course, students also have to know that threats and violence are not the way to resolve such problems. So at the same time that the team may help to address the issue, it also has to address the student’s behavior.

Most threat assessments determine that a subject is not a risk. But the process is constructive even in those cases, because it serves as an early warning for possible future problems. A record is established, and if a later report on the same person is brought to the assessment team, its database will show that a pattern may be developing. The two events will have more significance than each would have if the dots were not connected.

“Threat assessment isn’t a snapshot, it’s an ongoing process,” says Wilson.

The team may also decide to proactively reassess a person of interest without waiting for another tip to come in. The team looks for signs of negative developments in situational factors, such as academic performance or social standing, which may become catalysts for violence. They seek out people who know the subject and interview them to see if any changes in behavior have been observed. Constant re-evaluation ensures that a potential threat won’t fall off the radar screen as it grows.

The objective of assessment teams is not only to protect others from potentially violent individuals but also to help those exhibiting violent behaviors from harming themselves and their futures. As Wilson says, “You’re looking for behaviors that you can address early to get people back on track to be successful.”

No one knows what may have happened if Cho had remained under close observation and received the mental health assistance that he needed before his descent into darkness at Virginia Tech. The result could have been the same, or maybe he could have gotten help that would have saved him and his victims. By formalizing behavioral threat assessment teams and agreeing on a common methodology for their tasks, colleges and universities may improve the odds that at-risk individuals on campus are identified and given the help they need before tragedy strikes.

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Apr 14 2008

Salem Community College set to launch student alert system

By Heather Simione, NJ.com

CARNEYS POINT TWP. Salem Community College is instituting a new emergency alert system called e2campus, which will enable school officials to quickly communicate with students in both emergency and non-emergency situations.

Talks among officials from Salem Community College and New Jersey’s Campus Security Task Force took place last October after shooting sprees, bomb threats and beatings affected college campuses nationwide.

“A defining moment between EMS and police happened during Columbine,” said Salem Community College President Dr. Peter B. Contini, referring to the Colorado high school shootings several years ago. “Timing is relevant to preventing potential losses and hazards.”

After the Virginia Tech shootings just about a year ago, NJEdgeNet a system designed to alert all campus members by e-mail and cell phone was put in place at Montclair State University here in New Jersey.

Montclair was the first among the state’s 59 colleges and universities to buy into the system. However, that system required students to upgrade cell phones so they would be compatible with the system. This cost students approximately $600.

SCC’s new system will not create a cost for students, according to Contini.

The e2campus alert system will cost between $2,500 and $6,000 for installation.

It is projected to cost the college $3,400 for the first year. Afterward, annual cost would depend on how many students register and whether the college chooses text only, or text with voice mail combination, to alert.

After a presentation to the board of trustee members showing several different emergency management systems, e2campus was recommended to fit the needs of students and staff.

Due to the wide range of students in soon-to-be different locations off of the main Carneys Point campus, it would also maintain the potential for letting students to be aware of scheduling changes in their classes.

e2campus has maintained an excellent track record with presenting alerts and has multi-purpose channel capabilities, as seen through a PowerPoint presentation given to the college board.

Text messaging, voice mail and PDAs are all within its capacity.

Also, SCC will make information about the system available to students by weaving it into the class registration process.

The service is not mandatory. However, because SCC does not have an intercom system, this makes it easier to spread word of a potential hazard on campus.

Contini said he hopes the system will be installed sooner than later, as the school readies for the new academic year.

Carol Ruffin, a board of trustees member, asked what level of responsibility the younger campus population would bear in registering for the service.

Contini said if the college were to take full responsibility for registering each student’s cell phone to receive messages, it would require taking information off registration forms, which periodically change.

“Registration forms, and one of the things associated with being a student, is transition,” said Contini. “They’re changing phone numbers, moving out of their parents’ house and changing addresses. The idea is to put responsibility on the user. Remember, they’re adults now. We’ll clean the data, but if the student doesn’t return we’ll do a match and it’ll pick it up. In 2010, I believe colleges will have a national text messaging system in place.”

Contini explained that the safety of students and staff is the college’s first priority, and that in addition to the e2campus system college, officials are also looking to stretch measures of security on campus farther.

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Apr 14 2008

Counseling center moves to identify troubled students

By Joy Yagi, The Daily

A gun fires in a nearby classroom. Screams echo down the hallways. Within the hour, news channels shout the same disturbing headline — school shooting.

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of Virginia Tech’s school shooting, the deadliest in U.S. history. With an increase in school shootings over the past few years, schools such as the UW are seeking new ways to identify troubled students and help them before they endanger themselves or others.

The effort, however, has suffered setbacks because the state legislature declined a portion of the UW’s budget plan, which would have added additional counseling staff. The UW has 10 full-time staff and three interns who helped 1,200 students last year.

“It’s not a major funding year,” said Eric Godfrey, vice provost for student life at the UW and part of the University’s Consultation and Assessment Team.

The team, created four months ago, was set up to provide preventative intervention and reach out to students by helping them through problems and connecting them with different resources, both on and off campus.

“Early intervention helps ensure students’ problems don’t escalate,” Godfrey said.

The team often refers students to the UW Counseling Center, located on the first floor of Schmitz Hall.

The center strives to support students in several areas. A troubled student is rarely dangerous though, said Ellen Taylor, director of the UW Counseling Center. Most students struggle with depression, anxiety or relationship problems.

If worried teachers or classmates recommend a student to the team or the center, counselors will try to interact with the student to find out what’s going on. Counselors want to get to the root of the problem before it develops further, Taylor said.

However, counseling is entirely voluntary. All sessions are confidential.

“[Counseling] is a tool in the toolkit,” said Ralph Robinson, UW assistant chief of field operations. “From the police perspective, we would like to avert a situation before it happens. If counseling helps, … that’s outstanding.”

Also, Gov.Chris Gregoire signed the Rebecca Jane Griego Bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), into law.

The bill, which was created following the murder of UW employee Griego in Gould Hall by her ex-boyfriend, allows police to have the authority to issue a protection order by mail rather than in person.

Gregoire also signed into law the Campus Safety Bill, sponsored by Kohl-Welles. In light of increased school shootings, this law requires campus safety plans for Washington’s colleges and universities.

“I work to do all I can to ensure that our schools, colleges, and universities are safe,” Kohl-Welles said.

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Apr 14 2008

Taking the lunch money back: Kids today confront new forms of bullying

By Timothy J. Carroll, Hudson Reporter

After several major school massacres and massive media attention on school bullying, are kids today still being victimized by their peers?

Studies have shown that taunting and tormenting are still going on in schools across the country, sometimes in new, modern ways.

Internet bullying or “cyber-bullying” was brought to the national forefront last October with the suicide of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from Dardenne Prarie, Mo. According to news reports, Meier hung herself in her room after a former friend of hers, and possibly even the friend’s mother, allegedly harassed her on MySpace posing as a teenage boy named “Josh Evans.” The 48-year-old mother was accused of the harassment.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “In 2002, a report released by the U.S. Secret Service concluded that bullying played a significant role in many school shootings, and that efforts should be made to eliminate bullying behavior.”

Bullies can intimidate their victims both physically and emotionally.

But a local free seminar will be helping kids deal with both of those threats.

Self-confidence, according to Sensei Kat Diaz, is the key. Diaz has been a head instructor at Tiger Schulmann’s Mixed Martial Arts center in Hoboken for eight years.

She has seen children come in the door with fear in their eyes, and has sent them back with a fire in their bellies.

“A lot of times it’s more for their self-confidence,” Diaz said.

She will be conducting their annual Bully Prevention Seminar on Saturday, April 19 in their Hoboken location to help instill confidence in kids who might otherwise be targets.

“We want to teach them how to avoid it,” Diaz said, “before it gets into a physical confrontation.”

In search of confidence

And according to Charles Patricolo, vice president of marketing for Tiger Schulmann, “It is a proven fact that confident kids don’t get bullied.”

He said kids become less of a target because they lose their fear of the fight. “When you’re training, you’re less afraid of physical confrontation.”

The kids are taught how to recognize and handle bully situations, including physical confrontation.

“We teach them a very simple way to get out of a basic wrist grab,” among other things, said Diaz. “These are moves where you can release without hurting the other person.”

Leaders of such programs say they are teaching the kids to defend themselves and be confident, not to start a fight.

“We do tell them to let teachers know if it gets physical,” said Diaz.

In the Hoboken schools

In the local schools, administrators say that physical bullying has diminished.

“We don’t have that many physical challenges on our hands,” said Connors School Principal Linda Erbe last week.

She said that the key is intervening and talking before it gets that far.

“It’s being proactive with kids,” she said.

Connors recently brought in Dr. Michael Fowlin, an actor, psychologist, and poet, to give students grade three through seven a lively presentation on problems they might face, including bullying. His presentation offered solutions to these problems with character-building techniques.

Last week, the district sent various teachers and administrators to a seminar on bullying run by regional universities.

“They separate it into two stages, passive and aggressive,” said Edith Vega, district bilingual ESL supervisor.

Passive examples would be shunning or allowing other to get bullied and aggressive bullying is bullying in the classic sense.

Vega said teachers bear much of the burden, but that everyone is responsible even after the bell has rung. “It encompasses all of us, principals, disciplinarians, coaches.”

Cyber-bullying

The seminar also dealt with a new breed of computer-friendly bullies. Cyber-bullying can range from sharp insults to grave threats.

“As of January 1, we are to include cyberspace bullying in our bullying policy,” Vega said. “They use technology to harass other students.”

“I don’t think we have too much going on via the computers,” Erbe said of Connors School.

The seminar that Vega attended called for schools to take responsibility for any cyber-bullying that occurs on their computers. She said that the district already has a policy on acceptable use of the Internet.

A 2007 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that one out of every three of teens had been subject to online bullying. The study also showed that kids are still more likely to be physically bullied than they are to be cyber-bullied.

“One in every five kids doesn’t want to go to school because they’re getting bullied,” Diaz said. She said bullying can start online, but it can easily spill over to the schoolyard and kids need to know how to deal with it confidently.

Seminar information

The seminar takes place on Saturday, April 19. It is divided into two segments. It runs from 2 to 3 p.m. for kids ages 5 through 8, and 3 to 4 p.m. for kids ages 9 through 13 at Tiger Schulmann of Hoboken, 84 Washington St.

The Bully Prevention Seminar is one of Tiger Schulmann’s KIDSAFE programs which, according to Patricolo, also include a Child Abduction Seminar.

For more information on the seminar, call (201) 792-5425, or visit www.tsk.com.

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