After three students were killed in a shooting at the University of Virginia, officials gave a news conference Monday to a shaken campus community. They said the suspected shooter, also a student, was apprehended after an overnight search. They identified the dead students, all members of the football team: D’Sean Perry, Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr.
The university’s police chief also mentioned that the suspect, Christopher Darnell Jones, recently came to the attention of the university’s Threat Assessment Team, a group of officials who evaluate potential threats to campus security.
In September, the Threat Assessment Team received a report that Jones had made comments to someone about having a gun, although that person never saw the gun, said Police Chief Timothy Longo, who is part of the team. According to Longo, the comment did not include any threats about the gun.
“The Office of Student Affairs contacted the reporting individual and attempted to contact Mr. Jones,” Longo said. “They actually went after Mr. Jones’ roommate, who didn’t report having a gun.”
It wasn’t the first time Jones had crossed paths with the threat assessment team. He was involved in a hazing investigation focused on a football team; Jones was on the roster in 2018 but did not play in any games. The investigation was closed after witnesses refused to cooperate. During that investigation, the university learned that Jones was involved in a previous “criminal incident” outside of Charlottesville involving a concealed weapons violation.
Longo’s comments confirmed that Jones was on the university’s radar for months before he was named the sole suspect in the murders of Perry, Chandler and Davis. This revelation brought fresh attention the role of threat assessment teams in college security protocols.
The teams have existed for 15 years, but their role is not widely understood outside of student affairs and campus security offices. Chronicle spoke with several higher education experts about what threat assessment teams do and potential concerns about their work. Here’s what you need to know.
What are threat assessment teams?
Threat assessment teams, sometimes called behavioral intervention teams, are groups of college administrators who meet to evaluate students—and in many cases, faculty, staff, and bystanders—who have been flagged as a potential danger to themselves or others.
At these meetings, which can be monthly, weekly, or somewhere in between, officials share details about threats posed by students, determine the severity of the threats and decide on a course of action. They often use a numerical rubric to rate.
People are so focused on students who may be acting out, but it could be a disgruntled employee.
The aim is to intervene before violence occurs by responding to warning signs such as mental health problems or failure to meet basic needs.
Experts said there are two schools of thought when it comes to teams. In one model, teams focus on students who pose a real threat to the safety of themselves or the campus as a whole. Another, more common framework focuses on helping students at any level of risk, including those at risk for academic failure.
This broader approach recognizes that in many cases, students at risk of violence are also those who are struggling psychologically, socially and academically, said Victor Schwartz, a psychologist and former official at the Jed Foundation, a suicide prevention group. . He now advises colleges on mental health issues.
“Over time, risk assessment became one narrow track within a much broader effort to enable early identification and early intervention for any struggling student,” Schwartz said.
How did the teams get started?
Threat assessment teams grew in higher education after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where a student gunman killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself. Some on campus had known about the shooter’s mental health issues and violent intentions, but no one had connected the dots.
“None of the wheels had a central hub that collected information and shared information,” said Jeffrey J. Nolan, a lawyer who works with the colleges. “Instead, there was a maintenance team in the middle that got bits and pieces. There was a lot of information about the criminal that never made it to a centralized location.
It’s not clear how many colleges have threat assessment teams, but 633 institutions are members of the National Association for Behavior Intervention and Threat Assessment, known as Nabita. Some states, including Virginia, now require public colleges to have such teams.
Who serves on the teams?
Membership varies by college, but experts said they often include officials from the departments of public safety, residential life and student conduct, as well as representatives from the dean of students’ office, the Title IX office and the counseling center. .
The UVA team has at least 12 offices represented, including the Department of Campus Safety, the Office of the General Counsel and the Office of Students.
“Typically, you want people who are likely to interact with students when they’re in trouble,” Schwartz said.
The focus on students can come at the expense of faculty awareness of the dangers, said Jody Shipper, co-founder and CEO of senior consulting firm Grand River Solutions. For larger teams, it may be good to have representatives who can speak to faculty and staff on matters such as human resources officers.
“That doesn’t always happen,” Shipper said, “because people are so focused on students who may appear to be a disgruntled employee.”
What do teams do when they find a student or someone else is a threat?
If the threat assessment team determines that a student is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others, the team will immediately involve law enforcement. If the risk is less immediate, such as if a student is struggling in class, the team creates a management plan.
“You want the most benign intervention to be the first,” Schwartz said. “And then you go into a deeper intervention, depending on the severity and the acuity of the situation.”
According to the dispatcher, it is important to remember that the team is not a substitute for law enforcement. Rather, it is a tool for sharing information, identifying threats, and determining what other information is needed to respond appropriately.
Sometimes, Shipper said, outside experts may need to weigh in. Officers may need to contact people, such as family members, who are close to the person of concern to gather more information about their state of mind.
Are there any concerns about how teams work?
One of the main concerns with threat assessment teams is student privacy.
Students are usually unaware that they are the focus of a threat assessment investigation and may be alarmed when they receive a call from an unknown officer asking about their well-being.
“You don’t want this campus to feel like the slightest thing leads to an overreaction, because then people don’t report things,” Schwartz said. “So the responses have to be titrated very carefully – not under- or over-reacting.”
For example, Schwartz said a police response may not be appropriate for a student with mental health or substance use issues.
In addition, Nolan said, in many cases, the student has done nothing to break the law. “A lot of information gathering is not a law enforcement function,” he said.
What are some best practices for threat assessment teams?
Shipper said threat assessment teams should be narrowly tailored. He said administrators in certain roles should be “identified and required” to belong to groups.
“It’s not just a volunteer thing because you applied for the whole campus,” he said, “Who wants to serve?”
The team also needs to figure out how it will receive the reports, Shipper said — directly, through a triage process or from the campus safety department.
Good teams also practice how they respond to reports, he said.
Despite this week’s tragedies at UVA and the University of Idaho, Schwartz said it’s important to remember that colleges are relatively safe places and generally have good support systems for at-risk students.
“We don’t hear about all the tragedies that have been prevented,” he said. “We only hear about the ones that are doing badly.”