UNIVERSITY PARK – The spirit of Penn State’s Behavioral Threat Management team can be expressed in three simple directives: see it, hear it, share it.
Over the past decade, growing attention has been paid to threat assessment with particular focus at institutions of higher education and secondary schools. Stepping in before a troubled individual harms others or themselves is the objective.
“We are all in this together,” said Rebecca Bywater, Penn State’s threat assessment director. “Don’t just keep it to yourself. You don’t want to be the person who says ‘I knew something was wrong with that individual, but I didn’t bother to say anything.’”
Penn State is fortunate to have a multidisciplinary team at every campus, Bywater said. University Park’s 11-member team comprises representatives from University Police and Public Safety; Counseling and Psychological Services, Residence Life and the Office of Student Conduct, all within Student Affairs; Office of Undergraduate Education; the Graduate School; Office of Human Resources; Office of Affirmative Action; Office of General Counsel; and the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses. Established in 2010, the team meets weekly to discuss recent reports of concerning behavior and the proper follow-up measures.
That spirit of collaboration is present this week as Penn State hosts the third annual B1G Behavioral Threat Assessment Conference.
“Our goal is to look at different behaviors that rise to the level of a potential threat and make sure that we’re managing and mitigating that threat to keep campus safer,” she said.
According to the FBI, concerning behaviors include:
— A preoccupation with violence;
— Depression, anger, and impulsive and uncontrollable behavior;
— Poor coping skills;
— Low frustration tolerance; and
— Suicidal thoughts.
A campus-wide collaboration, said Bywater, ensures that critical information is exchanged among the right authorities, making campus safer for students, faculty, staff and visitors.
“These programs work best in a community where there is a commitment to look after each other,” said Gene Deisinger, deputy chief and director of threat management with the Virginia Tech Police Department. “When you see a door propped open at a residence hall you report it, but you also close the door. If you see someone intoxicated crossing the street you make sure they get across safely.”
With nearly 20 years of experience in threat assessment, he wrote The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment & Management Teams, a 2008 book that has become the seminal text on the subject. He was brought in to bolster Virginia Tech’s threat assessment efforts after the 2007 shooting there that left 33 dead, and consulted with Penn State during the creation of its University Park team.
At Penn State Altoona, Joy Himmel heads the Early Alert Program, which brings the “eyes and the ears of campus” together for weekly meetings. In addition to improving safety, Himmel said Early Alert is a retention tool aimed at helping students succeed personally and academically.
Marketing is a constant, she said, as the team tries to make faculty, staff and students feel more comfortable about making submissions. Early Alert, which Himmel founded in 2006, is promoted through Listservs, The Toilet Paper stall postings and mouse pads, among other ways.
“We try to educate the campus community that this is a resource and is something designed to be supportive and helpful,” Himmel said. “It’s not punitive.”
On Wednesday (June 4) and Thursday (June 5), liaisons from Commonwealth Campuses along with representatives from Big Ten universities will be sharing information and hearing from nationally recognized experts at the conference.
Andre Simons, unit chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit 2, will deliver a keynote talk Wednesday, addressing lessons learned from past incidences as well as growing issues, such as identifying expressions of violent intend on social media.
“It’s the responsibility of law enforcement, mental health professionals and all campus community safety stakeholders to collaborate in the effort to make sure that a situation doesn’t escalate to the point where someone feels that violence remains their only resolution, the only way that they can solve their problems,” he said.
Simons said more intuitions of higher education are taking the initiative to build threat management teams and that some states, such as Virginia, have mandated it. He stressed the importance of bystanders in “thwarting and disrupting plans of targeted violence” and that threat assessment isn’t exclusively about meting out punishment.
“The majority of those threat management strategies,” Simons said, “involve a great deal of caretaking and intervention that will help that person of concern to not only not become violent against other people but not become violent toward themselves as well.”