Assessing the threat of violence on college campuses
February 14, 2013Tweet
Gene Deisinger plays two roles at Virginia Tech − one as deputy chief of police for the campus, and the other as director of threat management services. He has a PhD in counseling psychology and is a licensed psychologist, a certified health service provider in psychology and a certified law enforcement officer. He jokingly admits that he’s everyone’s worst nightmare: “I’m a shrink with a badge and a gun.”
Co-author of The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment & Management Teams, he recently spent two days at Binghamton University, sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs, to help the Students of Concern Committee as well as faculty, staff and community agency representatives better understand how to navigate the world of threat assessment and management.
With nearly 80 people in the room on day one, Deisinger explained that threat assessment and management must take a multidisciplinary approach because humans are terrible at estimating risk. “For the last 25 years as a discipline we have misunderstood, misconveyed, misrepresented, but mostly misunderstood the juxtaposition of predicting dangerousness and of telling the truth,” he said. “We can’t predict violence. We’re no better than chance at predicting violence.
“The first documented act of violence on a college campus was in the 1600s,” Deisinger said, when one faculty member killed another and even though now it seems as if mass murders are on the rise, the rate is constant for mass murder on college campuses. “This is not an epidemic; it’s an effect of population growth,” he said. “There is more violence, and not just mass shootings, but not more per capita. As the population grows, there will be more of these.”
We need to look at many factors when assessing whether a threat of violence is present, he said, because perpetrators are more different than similar, just as the kind of violence is different. Deisinger explained that some violence is predatory − fueled by anger or revenge – where there is an identifiable target and a great deal of planning before the violent act is committed. Other violence is affective, which is unpredictable in the moment, fueled by hormonal dumps within the body and sparked by fear. Affective violence can’t persist for more than a few hours, he said, so for example, in a hostage situation involving an affective violence perpetrator, “the longer it goes, the higher the survivability,” and those involving a predatory violence perpetrator, “the longer it’s drawn out, the likelier for harm.”
We can predict outcomes for groups of people with the potential for committing affective violence with 75 percent accuracy, said Deisinger, but there is no way to accurately predict predatory violence.
On college campuses, 60 percent of perpetrators of violence are current or former students, 11 percent are current or former employees, 20 percent are indirectly affiliated (such as vendors or family members) and 9 percent have no known affiliation.
But these perpetrators don’t just snap, Deisinger said, as he stretched a rubber band to the breaking point. “This is our person of concern experiencing a variety of things in life and if we continue to put tension on it, it becomes vulnerable and it’s going to break,” he said. “We can’t predict where. What we didn’t see was where all the tension was going on before the snap. So we want to understand the strain on the rubber band before it snaps.”
Understanding comes from paying attention. Most perpetrators – more than 75 percent of them – are known by others to be engaging in planning of some kind before an attack, Deisinger said. And over 75 percent also discuss their plans with others, most often peers. “Peers in general are some of best sources of information about what is going on with people we are concerned about.”
In the absence of an individual telling their plans to others, behavior can be an indication. “We can’t prevent everything, but there are many things we can do to mitigate and minimize impact,” he said. “So, in doing threat assessment management, I’ve no interest in predicting. I’m interested in what is happening and how we move forward.”
Deisinger uses a systematic approach, first identifying situations of concern and then getting a contextual understanding of what’s going on. “But more information doesn’t make better decisions,” he cautioned. “It introduces ambiguity. The absence of a history of violence predicts nothing. The presence of one is predictive of continued violence, but your answer should be ‘you don’t know’ if someone is experiencing a stressor or if they will be violent. You have to ignore the relevant information and use it to develop a multidisciplinary approach to manage the situation.”
A threat assessment team should look at the facts and direct observations of the case, interview witnesses and develop strategies from the base conclusions, always demonstrating reasonableness in managing the situation, Deisinger said. “You might still be wrong, but the law requires you to be reasonable, not right, and you need to be able to demonstrate your reasonableness.
“Were your strategies FORT − fair, objective, reasonable and timely?” he asked. “My bias is that good documentation about a good process is a good thing because the absence of documentation hurts you more and makes it hard to demonstrate that you followed a systematic process.
Violence is also a dynamic process, Deisinger said. Dangerousness is situational, based on justification, alternatives, consequences and ability (JACA), a concept developed by security issues specialist Gavin DeBecker. Targeted violence, then, is the product of four factors:
S - the subject who may take violent action
T- vulnerabilities of the target of such actions
E - an environment that facilitates or permits violence, or does not discourage it
P - precipitating events that may trigger reactions
So, in the context of safe campuses, comprehensive safety planning is vital, said Deisinger. “Have proactive plans in place. Our capacity to respond is important.”
As a threat assessment team functions, he recommended:
• Communication – into the system, among the team and back out to the community
• Collaboration – If part of the team, use a collaborative approach and share. There is no one owner of a case.
• Coordination – of efforts. What is institution trying to do? Need to knit solutions together in a way that makes sense to advance the case.
• Capitalization – on existing resources. What’s needed to make it work may already be in place, but make it work better or differently.
Deisinger added a few other notes to consider when involved in threat assessment:
• Safety should always be the primary focus. “It’s about safety as the guiding mission.”
• FERPA is not an impediment. You want (as an institution) to be respectful of privacy and to communicate that the records and information can be shared with those that have a need to know.
• Does the situation require an emergency response? “Most often, not,” he said. “But the fact that someone is in custody, doesn’t mean the matter is resolved. So now we say, what do we need to look for moving on?”
• Where else can you get information for contextual assessment? What are your considerations? Who gathers the information? Is there a reasonable safety concern?
• Threats by themselves are not a predictor, but a threat via several methods significantly raises the risk. The more threats there are, the greater the risk.
• Is there an inappropriate interest in other incidents and an immersion into violent activities?
• Has the person of concern engaged in any planning behavior? Attack-related behaviors? Does the person have the capacity to carry out a targeted act of violence?
• Is there a lack of perceived alternatives? Look at coping skills with those with mental illness or not. Does the person have a trusting relationship with at least one responsible person? It could be a precipitating factor; can we use that person to be an ally?
• Most subjects never act on threats and many subjects who commit acts of violence never make threats.
Day two: Case studies
The primary goal in threat assessment is the safety of all persons involved, Deisinger said. “What you do, what you recommend and what actions you take are the tools to reach that goal.”
Working with the group, Deisinger talked through what they would do in various scenarios that could happen anywhere. Using case studies from his own experience, the group analyzed cases of threats made by e-mail, on Facebook pages, by someone who had received a low grade and was in danger of not graduating, by a student yelling in class and by a stalker.
In each case, Deisinger said, his team was “looking for clues on how to work with” the person making the threats.
“Regardless of what it’s caused by, we’re just describing behaviors at a point in time,” he said. “We’re talking about the whole context. We can’t take individual behaviors and over-generalize them. We have a tendency to overestimate affective behavior and underestimate predatory behavior.” The major point for affective versus predatory for me, he said, is to have some insight on how to manage acute behaviors over the long term.