The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

4 Tips for Identifying and Assessing Behavioral Risk on Campus

wordleApril 16 marks the eighth anniversary of one of the most horrific mass killings in the United States – the massacre at Virginia Tech in which 32 people were killed and 17 others injured by a student gunman. This unimaginable act of violence at one of the nation’s most well-known universities sparked a national dialogue on the issues of gun control and mental health services, as well as the obligations and responsibilities of the university and its leadership, both before the shooting and afterward.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, many higher ed institutions began to rethink their risk assessment and violence prevention strategies. Many created “active shooter” protocols and instituted emergency alert systems designed to get the word out quickly to the campus community in the event of an incident of violence. And many, in the years since Virginia Tech and countless other acts of violence on campuses across the country, have implemented procedures designed to assess and manage behavioral risk in the hopes of identifying high-risk individuals and taking action before tragedy strikes.

Best Practices in Behavioral Risk Assessment and Intervention
If your institution does not have a behavioral risk assessment strategy, or if your current strategy needs some updating, here are some tips from Mary Main, head of human resources at Bates College (Main will share at this year’s CUPA-HR Eastern Region conference Bates’s approach to behavioral assessment and intervention on campus):

  • Create an active (key word!) behavioral assessment/intervention team with representatives from a variety of campus departments and units. Bates’s behavioral intervention team (BIT) consists of the head of human resources, the associate dean of the faculty (who also happens to be a psychology professor/therapist), the associate dean for student support and conduct, the associate dean for residence life, the health center director, the athletic director, the director of security and the night shift security supervisor. The team’s ground rules: it meets biweekly and attendance is mandatory (thus, the team is active instead of just reactive); if an emergency BIT meeting is called, team members must drop what they are doing and attend; all information shared is confidential; names and complete information (with the exception of those protected by law) are freely shared within the team.
  • Enlist the help of the entire campus community (and then some) in identifying individuals who may be struggling and develop a mechanism whereby they can report concerns. The Bates College intervention team depends on referrals from the campus community (students, faculty, staff and visitors) and from outside the campus community (students’ and employees’ friends, family members, healthcare providers and law enforcement) to ensure the college campus is a safe and secure place to study, live and work. Says Main, “Abnormal behavior does not have to meet the standard of a violation of law and/or policy to be worrisome.” At Bates, conduct such as assault, harassment and threats will automatically be reviewed and in addition, the team may evaluate changing circumstances or behaviors that may singularly or in combination generate concern. All referrals are evaluated seriously but not all may warrant further action.
  • Follow a logical risk assessment process for each case. For Bates, this process is: 1) gather information – the team gets the most information it can from as many sources as possible; 2) determine the presence of risk factors; 3) develop a good formulation of violence risk – do the risk factors relate to the present situation?; 4) develop scenarios of violence; 5) develop a case management plan based on those scenarios; 6) develop a conclusory opinion about violence risk.
  • Create several different options for case management, as no two cases will be the same. Options at Bates range from monitoring the case with no direct action, to referral to a local community resource, to initiating a disciplinary process, implementing restrictions on the student/employee of concern and removal from campus.

By creating a process to identify individuals on campus who may be struggling or who are showing signs of mental illness or bizarre or threatening behavior, steps can be taken to defuse a potentially violent situation and prevent what might be the next headline-making incident. Is it time to take a fresh look at your risk assessment and violence prevention strategies?

For additional resources related to threat and risk assessment and violence prevention on campus, see the Crisis Management Toolkit in CUPA-HR’s Knowledge Center.