Enhancing Campus Safety with a Threat Assessment Program

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Here are some key concepts recommended by the U.S. Secret Services that organizations can adopt when they respond to individuals exhibiting concerning behavior.

Note: the U.S. Secret Service will be presenting Preventing Targeted Violence at School, College and University Campuses at the Campus Safety National Forum June 26. To register, visit CampusSafetyConference.com.

The U.S. Secret Service protects high profile individuals, such as the president and the first family, and the places they live, work and visit. Although ensuring their physical safety is our priority, we also seek to prevent a variety of behaviors that may negatively impact those under our protection or could place others at risk. These actions could include sending harassing emails to members of the first family or attempting to commit suicide at a protected site. To prevent these behaviors, we employ physical security measures, as well as comprehensive threat assessment techniques. This latter approach seeks to identify individuals who might engage in unusual, threatening or inappropriate behaviors; assess the risk that these individuals may pose; and develop management strategies to reduce their risk of engaging in behavior that could be harmful to themselves or others.

Just as we are concerned about preventing harm to those under our protection, hospital, school and college campus officials undertake steps every day to keep their community members and facilities safe. Although campuses throughout the country may refer to the threat assessment process differently, the goal is the same — to intervene and reduce risks posed to the campus community. Here are some key concepts for you to consider in fostering positive climates and establishing a comprehensive threat assessment program that can enhance the safety and security of your campus.

Foster a Climate of Care and Encourage Reporting

On a daily basis, individuals on American campuses become concerned about their classmates, roommates, students, coworkers, employees, customers and others. These concerns vary along a spectrum. They may arise from observing small changes in someone’s behavior, such as declining grades or tardiness at work; concerning communications, such as expressions of anger or hopelessness; or noticing more serious interpersonal difficulties, such as bullying or strains on relationships from increasing isolation or conflict. Identifying and reporting these concerns is a responsibility that must be shared among all members of the campus.

Schools, universities and hospitals have created processes that foster a climate in which members of the community feel more comfortable reporting their concerns to appropriate campus personnel. Many campuses have identified and shared with their community members examples of concerning behaviors that could indicate an individual is struggling. They have then advertised where members can go with their concerns. Campus officials have made the assessment process transparent and ensured the community understands that the process is not in place to punish individuals. Instead, it is to connect them to resources and support.

To foster this climate of care at your campus and encourage community members to report their concerns, you may consider creating an online presence through your campus websites, social media and mobile apps to inform campus members about what to do when they are concerned about an individual, the types of support systems that are offered on campus and the process used to connect individuals to resources. Ensuring that everyone feels a shared sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of the campus as a whole is an important part of any threat assessment program.

Gather Information on the Individual

Once someone comes to your attention, it is important to create a comprehensive portrait of that individual in order to assess his or her circumstances. This will allow you to determine what resources he or she may need, and what type of intervention is most appropriate. This information can be obtained by talking to the individual and those who know the person well or who interact with him or her regularly, checking the person’s social media pages and online postings, and reviewing any available records that provide information relevant to your understanding of the person’s history, current state, and potential actions.

Records may offer information on such things as disciplinary actions, mental health treatment, employment history and previous interactions with law enforcement. During this process, you can gather information about the behavior or statements that brought the person to your attention, the stressors or negative life events he or she may be experiencing and the support network they have to handle those events.

  1. The behaviors or statements that brought the person to your attention:
    It is important to understand why the person engaged in the behaviors or made the statements that concerned others and brought him or her to your attention, as well as the context surrounding the person’s actions. Also, you will want to discover whether the person has made other concerning statements or engaged in additional concerning behaviors. Learning more about the circumstances of the person’s activities will assist you in determining what supports and resources might be most appropriate for the individual. For example, if a student threatened an instructor because she felt a grade she received was unfair, you can intervene and direct the student to more appropriate resources to handle her grievance.
  2. Stressors and coping strategies:
    Understanding the stressful or negative events the person is experiencing helps identify circumstances in the person’s life that may be influencing the maladaptive behavior. Stressors range from seemingly minor events to significant, life altering events. They include, among other things, arguments with friends or loved ones, receiving a poor grade on an assignment or test, being removed from a team or club, being passed over for promotion, losing a job, filing for bankruptcy and losing a significant relationship. In addition to understanding the negative events impacting the person, learning how he or she solves problems or copes with stressful situations is also important. Determining whether the individual has positive coping strategies that help him or her overcome setbacks or problems, versus destructive strategies, such as using alcohol and drugs, will help you identify potential interventions. Further, exploring whether the person has used violence to solve problems in the past, and/or feels desperate or out of options to solve a problem may help you determine if the individual might put his or her own or someone else’s safety at risk.
  3. Support network:
    Exploring the person’s support network, which includes family members, mentors, colleagues and others, is important. While doing so, seek to determine whether the social network is a positive influence and directs the person to effective coping strategies, or if the network encourages poor coping behaviors and strategies. If the person does not have a support system, or if the people surrounding the individual are a negative influence, the campus may be able to connect the individual to other resources such as employee assistance programs, campus resource centers, supervisors or faculty members that can provide support and guidance during times of need.

Identify Appropriate Interventions and Resources

As you gather information and create a comprehensive picture of the individual, you will be able to identify areas of the person’s life in which he or she needs support. In so doing, you can develop management strategies that connect the person to appropriate resources and interventions that reduce the risk of negative outcomes by alleviating stressful situations or giving the person tools to handle the negative events he or she is experiencing.

This might mean connecting a person who has recently lost a job to resources in the community that can provide necessities such as food, housing and job retraining; or it might involve connecting an individual to mental health treatment and medication, as well as recruiting his or her family or friends to assist with treatment compliance. In some cases, you may need to involve local law enforcement, especially if the person has made threats, engaged in violent behavior or brought prohibited items to the campus. It is important to build relationships with local law enforcement personnel proactively so that they can assist with an investigation or management when necessary.

Additional Considerations if You Suspect the Person May Engage in Violence

Although rare, you will at times be concerned that someone may be at risk for engaging in violence. If this is the case, then a threat assessment should determine whether the person has decided to target a specific individual, office or classroom; or decided to indiscriminately target the campus as a whole. Once you determine whether the person had identified one or more targets, you will need to immediately contain and control the situation, which may involve working with local law enforcement.

In addition, there may be small changes you can make to the targeted individual’s schedule or campus’s security practices that may interfere with a person’s plans to attack. For example, you may be concerned that a student has plans to attack her school. The student likely knows what time most students will arrive in the morning, how they enter the building and where they gather. Changing this familiar pattern for a short period of time, or until you have managed this student’s risk of violence at the campus, may obstruct her attack plans.

Alternatively, you may be concerned that an employee has plans to attack his supervisor. The employee may know, or may have taken time to learn, his supervisor’s schedule, to include when he or she arrives for work and leaves, as well as some of his supervisor’s usual activities, such as favorite restaurants or gym membership. Encouraging the employee’s supervisor to alter his or her schedule, or be more conscious of personal security, could impede the employee’s plans and allow you to manage his or her risk of violence.

Sharing Information Is Your Key to Success

Maintaining a safe campus is the responsibility of all community members. Information sharing is an essential element for fostering communication and creating a successful threat assessment program. This includes advertising the program, providing avenues for members to report information, identifying roles and responsibilities, gathering and assessing information, and connecting individuals to available resources.

Catherine Camilletti, Ph.D., is with the U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center. The Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) conducts operationally relevant research on various types of targeted violence; provides training on threat assessment and the prevention of targeted violence; and consults on threat assessment programs and individual cases of concern. Additionally, NTAC conducts outreach with federal, state, and local partners to learn how organizations identify, assess, and manage persons of concern. For additional information on NTAC’s research involving violence directed toward public officials and public figures, government facilities, K-12 schools, and institutions of higher education, visit www.secretservice.gov/ntac.shtml. The U.S. Secret Service will be presenting Preventing Targeted Violence at School, College and University Campuses at the Campus Safety National Forum on June 26.