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Assessing Campus Threats

Teaching troubled students after the Virginia Tech and NIU shooting

By Gary Pavela and John Zacker*

College campuses are not high-risk environments. Nonetheless, the horrific nature of the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois shootings has potential to promote greater distance between teachers and students, especially students who seem "troubled" or "different." The aims of this memorandum (presented in a question and answer format) are to inform faculty members about relevant data and University services; outline core recommendations from state and federal reports after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings; and to suggest that faculty members not retreat from their longstanding role of supporting, guiding, and mentoring students.

What should I do if I have concerns about a student?

What's most important to remember is that trained colleagues are standing by to help. Students must be treated fairly and responsibly—just as administrators and faculty members would expect if they were the subject of comparable inquiry—but the campus is not powerless or reluctant to act decisively when threats arise.

Immediate Threat of Violence or Substantial Disruption

The Department of Public Safety will respond to any act or threat of violence by calling 301.405.3333 or 911. Additionally, the Office of Student Conduct is authorized to impose an immediate suspension (pending a hearing) if a student engages in threatening or disruptive behavior. And campus mental health professionals can initiate a mandatory evaluation process or even invoke procedures to dismiss students who pose a "direct threat" to self or others.

Disruptive or Disorderly Conduct

Reports of behavior that is disorderly or disruptive or poses a concern for violence should be reported to the Office of Student Conduct (301.314.8204 or Disruptive or disorderly students may be charged under the University's Code of Student Conduct and/or be referred to specific counseling or mental health interventions, if appropriate.

Behavior Evaluation and Threat Assessment

The Behavioral Evaluation & Threat Assessment (BETA) Team provides evaluation, assessment, and consultation to faculty and staff. The Team is comprised of the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs (chair), representatives from the departments of Public Safety, Mental Health, and Counseling. You may reach the team by contacting John Zacker, BETA Team chair at or 301.314.8204.

Concerns About Signs of Distress

Comprehensive evaluation and treatment is provided by the Counseling Center and Mental Health Services in the Health Center. Contact the Counseling Center (301.314.7651) for consultation with a counselor or visit the Counseling Center website for assistance. If immediately medical attention or hospitalization may be necessary contact Mental Health Services (301.314.8106). The Department of Public Safety should be contacted if there is a threat of violence or medical transportation is required.

Should I talk with a student about my concerns?

Exercise judgment on a case by case basis, preferably after consultation with colleagues, perhaps including BETA Team.

An effort at conversation is generally advisable. Students are often oblivious to the impressions they make. Careful listening and courteous dialogue—perhaps with participation by a department chair or student conduct administrator—will often resolve the problem. At a minimum, the discussion may prove valuable in any subsequent threat assessment process.

Please do not give assurances of confidentially. A student who appears to pose a threat to self or others needs to be referred for help and supervision. College teachers should not abrogate their traditional role as guides and mentors, but they must not assume the responsibilities of therapists or police officers.

One danger in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings would be a climate of fear and distance between teachers and students, especially students who seem odd, eccentric, or detached. Research on violence prevention suggests schools and colleges need more cross-generational contact, not less. The National Research Council (NRC) report stated that:

In the course of our interviews with adolescents, we are reminded once again of how "adolescent society," as James S. Coleman famously dubbed it 40 years ago, continues to be insulated from the adults who surround it…The insularity of adolescent society serves to magnify slights and reinforce social hierarchies; correspondingly, it is only through exchange with trusted adults that teens can reach the longer-term view that can come with maturity…[W]e could not put it better than the words of a beloved long-time teacher [at one of the schools studied]: "The only real way of preventing [school violence] is to get into their heads and their hearts…"

Getting into the "heads and hearts" of students goes beyond individual conversations. It entails fostering a community of engagement, defined by an active sense of mutual responsibility. This critical endeavor depends upon the faculty. Now more than ever faculty members must demonstrate skills in reaching outward, not retreating inward.

Is there a "copycat" phenomenon in some rampage shootings?

Publicity about past shootings can be influential. Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, emulated the Columbine shooters and referred to them as "martyrs on a par with Jesus Christ." The 2000 FBI report "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective" (National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Federal Bureau of Investigation) states in this regard that:

School shootings and other violent incidents that receive intense media attention can generate threats or copycat violence elsewhere. Copycat behavior is very common…Anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that threats increase in schools nationwide after a shooting has occurred anywhere in the United States. Students, teachers, school administrators and law enforcement officials should be more vigilant in noting disturbing student behavior in the days and weeks or even several months following a heavily publicized incident elsewhere in the country (emphasis supplied). (p.24).

How frequent are homicides and other violent crimes on campus?

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the Census Bureau, and the FBI, "the murder rate on college campuses was 0.28 per 100,000 people, compared with 5.5 per 100,000 nationally." The magnitude of the Virginia Tech shootings (32 people killed) is highlighted by the fact that the total number of murders on American college campuses (approximately 4,200 institutions enrolling 16 million students) "fluctuated between 9 and 24" [a year] between 1997 and 2004" (Virginia Youth Violence Project, School of Education, University of Virginia, 2007).

In terms of other types of violent crime (robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault against students), a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice study by Katrina Baum and Patsy Klaus (Statisticians for the Bureau of Justice Statistics) reported that:

For the period 1995 to 2002, college students ages 18 to 24 experienced violence at average annual rates lower than those for nonstudents in the same age group (61 per 1,000 students versus 75 per 1,000 nonstudents). Except for rape/sexual assault, average annual rates were lower for students than for nonstudents for each type of violent crime measured… Rates of rape/sexual assault for the two groups did not differ statistically…

Between 1995 and 2002 rates of both overall and serious violence declined for college students and nonstudents. The violent crime rate for college students declined 54% (41 versus 88 per 1,000) and for nonstudents declined 45% (102 versus 56 per 1,000)…

Among the "characteristics of violent victimizations of college students" Baum and Klaus reported that "93% of crimes occurred off campus… ("Violent Victimization of College Students, 1995-2002")

How dangerous is college teaching?

A 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] report (the latest in the series available) on "Violence in the Workplace" (data for 1993 through 1999 from the National Crime Victimization Survey) shows that employees of colleges and universities have a violent crime victimization rate of 1.6 per 1,000, compared to 16.2 for physicians; 20 for retail sales workers; 54.2 for junior high teachers; 68.2 for mental health professionals; and 260.8 for police officers. The BJS report states that "[a]mong the occupational groups examined…college teachers were victimized the least."

School shootings are often suicides. How widespread is suicide among college students?

Multiple studies have found that college students commit suicide at half the rate of their non-student peers. One of the most cited surveys "found an overall student suicide rate of 7.5 per 100,000, compared to the national average of 15 per 100,000 in a sample matched for age, race and gender" (Silverman, et al. ,1997, "The Big Ten Student Suicide Study: a 10-year study of suicides on Midwestern university campuses," Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior 27[3]:285-303).

Generally, the national suicide rate for teenagers and young adults has been declining—after an extraordinary increase since the 1950s. More baseline studies pertaining to college students are needed, but experts believe the suicide rate in that group has been declining as well.

Are more students coming to college with mental disorders?

Probably yes. Caution is required because increases in counseling center visits and use of psychotropic medications may mean contemporary students are more willing to seek help for mental illness. In any event, college health center directors have been calling particular attention to larger numbers of students reporting the characteristics of clinical depression. A 2004 American College Health Association study found that forty-five percent of the students surveyed "felt so depressed" that it was "difficult to function." Nearly 1 in 10 students reported that such feelings occurred "9 or more times" in the past school year. Likewise, about 10% of college students report they "seriously considered suicide" and about 1.4% reported they had attempted suicide (Morton Silverman, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago; 2006 presentation at the University of Vermont Conference on Legal Issues in Higher Education).

Shouldn't we routinely remove depressed students, especially if they report suicidal ideation?

No, unless a threat or act of violence is involved. A 2006 article by Paul S. Appelbaum, Professor and Director of the Division of Psychiatry, Law, and Ethics at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (and a past President of the American Psychiatric Association) highlights some the practical issues involved:

No matter how uncommon completed suicides are among college students, surveys suggest that suicidal ideation and attempts are remarkably prevalent. Two large scale studies generated nearly identical findings. Roughly 10 percent of college student respondents indicated that they had thought about suicide in the past year, and 1.5 percent admitted to having made a suicide attempt. Combining data from the available studies suggests that the odds that a student with suicidal ideation will actually commit suicide are 1,000 to 1. Thus policies that impose restrictions on students who manifest suicidal ideation will sweep in 999 students who would not commit suicide for every student who will end his or her life—with no guarantee that the intervention will actually reduce the risk of suicide in this vulnerable group. And even if such restrictions were limited to students who actually attempt suicide, the odds are around 200 to 1 against the school's having acted to prevent a suicidal outcome" (emphasis supplied). (Psychiatric Services: "'Depressed? Get Out!' July 2006, Vol. 57, No. 7, 914-916).

Aside from unjustified removal of thousands of individuals—including some of our best and most creative students—routine dismissals for reported depression or suicidal ideation would also discourage students from seeking professional help. Good policy, good practice, and adherence to state and federal laws protecting people with disabilities require professional, individualized assessment and a fair procedure before students or employees can be removed on the ground that they have a mental disability that poses a "direct threat" to themselves or others.

Is there an association between mental illness and violence?

Research shows some association between severe mental illness and violence, especially when mental illness is accompanied by substance abuse. The 1994 American Psychiatric Association "Fact Sheet on Violence and Mental Illness" contains the following observation:

People often fear what they do not understand, and for many of us, mental illnesses fall into that category. This fear…[often] stems from the common misconception that the term ‘mental illness' is a diagnosis, and that all mental illnesses thus have similar symptoms, making all people who suffer with them equally suspect and dangerous…Recent research has shown that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. However, there is a certain small subgroup of people with severe and persistent mental illnesses who are at risk of becoming violent… (emphasis supplied).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services document "Understanding Mental Illness: Fact Sheet" (April 20, 2007) contains the observation that "[c]ompared with the risk associated with the combination of male gender, young age, and lower socioeconomic status, the risk of violence presented by mental disorder is modest." Such a "modest" correlation won't be sufficient to draw conclusions about the future behavior of any particular student. Again, individualized assessment will be imperative, focusing on a specific diagnosis, demonstrable behavior, compliance in taking prescribed medications, patterns of substance abuse, and any recent traumatic events or stresses, among other factors.

How can I identify potentially violent students?

This is not a task to be undertaken alone. Expertise is available on campus to help. See the contact information below and in our first answer.

It's important to resist the temptation to try to "profile" potentially violent students based on media reports of past shootings. The 2003 National Research Council [NRC] report "Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence" (a project undertaken by the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine) contains the following guidance:

One widely discussed preventive idea is to develop methods to identify likely offenders in instances of lethal school violence or school rampages…The difficulty is that…[t]he offenders are not that unusual; they look like their classmates at school. This has been an important finding of all those who have sought to investigate these shootings. Most important are the findings of the United States Secret Service, which concluded:

There is no accurate or useful profile of "the school shooter" (Emphasis supplied)

  • Attacker ages ranged from 11–21
  • They came from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. In nearly one-quarter of the cases, the attackers were not white.
  • They came from a range of family situations, from intact families with numerous ties to the community to foster homes with histories of neglect.
  • The academic performance ranged from excellent to failing.
  • They had a range of friendship patterns from socially isolated to popular.
  • Their behavioral histories varied, from having no observed behavioral problems to multiple behaviors warranting reprimand and/or discipline.
  • Few attackers showed any marked change in academic performance, friendship status, interest in school, or disciplinary problems prior to their attack .

A more promising approach is "threat assessment," based on analysis of observable behavior compiled from multiple sources and reviewed by a trained threat assessment team. The report "Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates" (developed by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education in 2002) contains the following overview:

Students and adults who know the student who is the subject of the threat assessment inquiry should be asked about communications or other behaviors that may indicate the student of concern's ideas or intent. The focus of these interviews should be factual:

  • What was said? To whom?
  • What was written? To whom?
  • What was done?
  • When and where did this occur?
  • Who else observed this behavior?
  • Did the student say why he or she acted as they did?

Bystanders, observers, and other people who were there when the student engaged in threatening behaviors or made threatening statements should be queried about whether any of these behaviors or statements concerned or worried them. These individuals should be asked about changes in the student's attitudes and behaviors. Likewise, they should be asked if they have become increasingly concerned about the student's behavior or state of mind.

However, individuals interviewed generally should not be asked to characterize the student or interpret meanings of communications that the student may have made. Statements such as "I think he's really dangerous" or "he said it with a smile, so I knew that he must be joking" may not be accurate characterizations of the student's intent, and therefore are unlikely to be useful to the threat assessment team . . . (p. 52).

Proper threat assessment is a team effort requiring expertise from experienced professionals, including law enforcement officers. Threat assessment on our campus is conducted by the BETA Team, headed by John Zacker, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs (301.314.8204 or Faculty members should contact the BETA Team whenever it is believed that a student may pose a risk of violence to self or others. If in doubt, seek a threat assessment. In an emergency, contact the Department of Public Safety (301.405.3333 or 911).

Related Links and Contact Information

Gary Pavela is a consultant to the University of Maryland Division of Student Affairs and is a Fellow of the National Association of College and University Attorneys. He was a consultant to the Governor's Task Force on Campus Safety for the state of Wisconsin (2007) and spoke to Virginia Tech faculty and staff at the July 2007 "Symposium for Managing At-Risk Students" (sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education).

John Zacker, PhD is the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and teaches in the College of Education, College Student Personnel Program. He also chairs the University BETA team.

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