Teams aimed at preventing violence on campus can offer a lifeline to those in crisis.
How safe is your workplace? It is nearly four years since biologist Amy Bishop walked into a faculty meeting with a loaded pistol and shot six of her colleagues, killing three. Acts of violence involving multiple victims are extremely rare, especially on college campuses, which tend to be safer than the areas that surround them. But highly publicized events such as Bishop’s rampage and the shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg in 2007 — which had one of the highest death tolls of any attack on a college campus — have spurred rapid growth in what is known as threat assessment and management. Developed by behavioural psychologists working with agencies such as the US Secret Service, threat assessment aims to identify concerning behaviour and situations, and to take pre-emptive action to stop them escalating into violence.
This can involve simply confronting an individual about inappropriate behaviour — aggression towards colleagues, for example — and working with them to correct it. Or it can include maintaining continual contact with an individual and putting them in touch with any help they might need, such as mental-health services.
It is a challenging goal. Universities are big, complex environments where many students, staff and members of the community interact, not always peacefully. But existing networks that organize and monitor housing, health, grades and social activities do offer ways for universities to identify aberrant or shifting behaviour, as well as a robust support structure to get people back on track.
A News Feature on page 150 explores the growth of such programmes and teams, particularly in the United States, where easy access to guns and several high-profile shootings have put the public on high alert. There seem to be some clear benefits, but the spread of these interdisciplinary teams, which often include law-enforcement officials and representatives of university mental-health services, also presents several risks.
“ For students these services can be extraordinarily helpful, even life-saving. ”
One risk that team members often worry about is how to balance individuals’ civil liberties with the need to protect others. In an age in which privacy is increasingly illusory, life within the boundaries of a college campus can be put under close scrutiny with little effort. And freedoms of speech and expression must be maintained if institutions of higher education are to continue to nurture ideas.
Another risk of the focus on threat assessment is more subtle, and relates to the all-too-easy assumption that people who commit unthinkable acts of violence are driven by mental illness. It is true that mental illness is implicated in many high-profile cases of targeted violence and that many behaviours that would initiate a call to a threat-assessment team are related to a deteriorating mental state. But the links between violence and mental illness are complex and hardly correlative. Most violence is perpetrated by people who are not mentally ill, and most people with mental-health problems do not commit violent crimes.
The rhetoric of threat assessment therefore runs the risk of further ostracizing people who already face stigma. Many cases managed by a threat-assessment team — there are several hundred referrals per year at an institution such as Virginia Tech — are for students or staff going through a crisis in their personal or professional life. Practitioners are quick to point out that theirs is a support-focused process, more about putting individuals in touch with the help they need to weather that crisis than punishing them, banishing them or branding them as potential threats.
Such nuances can be hard for an individual to remember when facing a threat-assessment investigation. And the leading part played by law-enforcement officials in proceedings adds an air of presupposed criminality.
All of this is not to devalue the efforts of these teams. They can be among the first to recognize and the most eager to serve those struggling with mental illness. And they often partner with other student-service organizations whose goals are not focused on averting the next mass shooting. If a case is not deemed particularly risky, threat-assessment teams may pass it over to these groups. For students, who are often facing unfamiliar challenges, these services can be extraordinarily helpful, even life-saving. Many referrals to threat-assessment teams are prompted by threats of suicide, for example.
The politics at play here are sadly familiar in the United States. A highly publicized mass shooting is followed by calls for stricter gun control, followed by pressure from gun supporters to maintain the status quo or even loosen restrictions on firearms. Somewhere along the line, fingers are pointed to the role mental illness had in the attack and attention shifts to the dismal state of mental health care in the country. Accusations are made, as are promises, but little is done. Threat assessment may not be a solution to violence, but if it means that more people get the help they need, irrespective of whether it staves off the next attack, then, to some people at least, it is a success.