Threat Assessment Teams Try To Predict Violence
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
A Harvard-educated neuroscientist allegedly shot six people at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and killed three. Afterwards, some former students came forward to say that Professor Amy Bishop's behavior had been odd enough for them to express concern to the associate dean.
If there had been an investigation, it might have uncovered violent behavior in her past. In 2002, Bishop reportedly punched a woman in a Massachusetts restaurant. In 1986, when she was 20 years old, she shot and killed her brother with a shotgun. Local authorities determined that was an accident and dropped all charges, but these were all warning signs, people say. Why didn't they raise red flags?
In recent years, and especially after the shootings at Virginia Tech, some colleges have implemented threat assessment programs. Professors and students can report erratic or disturbing behavior, threats and violence.
We'd like to hear today from professors and students. Have you ever reported threats? If there's a threat assessment program at your school, how does it work? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later, the next in our series on Oscar-nominated documentaries. The director of "Food, Inc." joins us. But first, threat assessment on college campus, and we begin with Gregory Eells, the director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University, a member of that university's threat assessment team. He's at a studio in Ithaca, New York. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Dr.�GREGORY EELLS (Cornell University): Thank you, Neal. It's good to be here.
CONAN: And let me also introduce Gene Deisinger, the director of threat management services and deputy chief of police at Virginia Tech, with us from a studio in Blacksburg, Virginia. Nice to have you on the program today.
Dr.�GENE DEISINGER (Virginia Tech): Thanks, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And let me follow up with you. How did threat assessment on campus change after the terrible shooting incidents there?
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, I think, Neal, it's important to keep in mind that threat assessment methodologies, while they've gotten a lot of attention in higher education in the last couple of years since the April 16, 2007 incident here at Virginia Tech, threat assessment methodologies have been around quite some time.
I was part of a team that formed back in 1994 at Iowa State University, although it's certainly garnered much more attention over the last couple of years.
CONAN: Well, as I understand it, in the past the focus was very much on trying to identify people who were students, primarily mentally disturbed, who might be threats to themselves. Has that focus shifted?
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, again, going back some time, it's not just trying to identify people who may be violent, either homicidal or suicidal, but people whose behavior indicates that they're experiencing difficulties.
It may be mental health, it may be lack of access to other resources, problem solving. The focus on who is going to be the next shooter I think is a highly misguided focus, and it gets us down a road that is just not going to be very fruitful for us.
CONAN: We, and many other people, did follow-ups after Virginia Tech, and a lot of people told us it's really difficult to predict violent behavior.
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, I think we see a couple of different extremes, Neal. We get one group of people saying after the fact, and we're hearing some of this in the last couple of weeks, that given what we think that we know now about what was going on with a particular case, we should have been able to predict a mass shooting, and we should have been able to prevent everything, or at the other end of the extreme, people who take a focus that we can't predict violence at all, so we shouldn't do anything.
And I don't think either of those two extremes is particularly fruitful for us, and this is akin to what Talib(ph) called a black swan event, where after a highly improbable event that has a major impact, we like to think that we can, through hindsight, predict what's going on.
And Talib's, I think, perspective, is very instructive, that that's not really the goal. The goal is to identify all the swans that may cause concern and identify areas of vulnerability. So as Talib says, you turn the black swans white.
CONAN: Gregory Eells there at Cornell, I know you just started up a protocol. What's the goal there?
Dr. EELLS: Well, it's very much like what Gene has outlined. I think much of the armchair quarterbacking that you see after an incident like this really is misguided. I think the goal is to build systems where people are communicating with each other, where you don't fall in those two extremes, where you can really find people who may be at risk.
A lot of time these efforts are about connecting people to support services and resources that may be helpful to them, where you can, as Gene said, turn the black swans to white swans. That's really what we're trying to do with our threat assessment protocol here, as well as our other teams that focus on student behavior.
CONAN: Well, give me a for instance. What kind of issues have you had to deal with?
Dr. EELLS: Well, you know, I think there you know, without getting into real specific cases, you know, dealing with issues around threats through electronic media, I think that's one that we look at, and to what extent those are viable threats.
You know, Gene and I have presented together, and I think those kind of stated threats oftentimes are really not good predictors of actual threat. That's oftentimes more vague or troubling composites of behavior you may look at.
So, you know, looking at some of those things that are more explicit, weighing out all the options and coming together as a collective team to really kind of weigh different pieces of information through what information the police may have, through my perspective as a licensed psychologist, through our university counsel's office, looking at the legal perspective, trying to come up with a collective decision that puts all those pieces of information together.
CONAN: When you say electronic media - email, Facebook, that sort of thing.
Dr. EELLS: Facebook, Twitter, yeah. A lot of times there will be threats that occur through those media, and I think, you know, many times you have some generational differences that students or people new to these media see them like diaries.
So they're talking about things that they may think are much more private than they really are, when, you know, you or I may see them as, like, the New York Times.
CONAN: Gene Deisinger, there at Virginia Tech, I know that, again, after the fact some of the students of the man who was involved in the shootings there, some of his professors said, well, he had written some very disturbing things, and you know, they were concerned about them but didn't want to report them for fear of well, there are privacy issues here.
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, perceptions about privacy issues and misinterpretations of law in numerous instances have interfered, have been one piece that's interfered with people's willingness to report.
I think if there's any telling lesson that is learned over the last few years is that these incidents are highly complex, and they're inter-relational and that no one person or department is likely to have the whole picture and certainly isn't likely capable of making sense of it by themselves.
So as Greg was saying, as his team works, as the team does here at Tech, as it did at Iowa State, the focus is pulling together these what may appear to be disparate pieces and seeing if they form a coherent picture and then raising the more interesting and challenging questions of what can we do to mitigate the risk.
CONAN: Well, you're obviously one member of the threat assessment team there at Virginia Tech. You're the deputy chief of police at Virginia Tech. Who else would be involved?
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, not just at Tech but in many teams, and Greg gave some examples of members that are on his teams. Many campuses have their mental health professionals, sometimes as their counseling service or health service professionals. For years, all the teams that I have served on has had HR representation, understanding that not all threats to colleges and universities are represented just by students, that faculty and staff and the hundreds of thousands, in many cases, of visitors that we get to campus can pose a threat to us.
So our HR professionals, our academic colleagues that understand the nuances and fluctuations of the academic year, our broader student affairs professionals who, in residence and in conduct, who deal with students in other facets of their lives - our goal on a team is to identify people who are what I think Gladwell(ph) referred to as connectors, that are integrated into the community and that are good early gatekeepers of recognizing developing concerns.
CONAN: And do you think you have done that successfully?
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, that's one thing that you never really judge until after the fact, right? This is a process. I think in our society, we're so outcome-oriented and so blame-oriented, we lose opportunities to enhance and refine process, and that has been our focus here at Virginia Tech over the last two and a half years, is learning from experiences and refining the process to the best of our ability, and we'll continue to do that.
CONAN: Let me put that question again. Have you intervened in the case of a student or a visitor or a staff member, anybody, and said, well, maybe that was a really good idea?
Dr. DEISINGER: Sure. On a daily basis we engage in reviewing situations and developing intervention plans to de-escalate the situations. Notice I keep talking about the situation, Neal.
There's too much of a focus on what we're trying to do to these people of concern. Usually that results in highly punitive or disciplinary interventions in place of more broader, integrated approaches; not that we shouldnt hold people accountable for inappropriate behavior. Of course we do.
But too often that's all we do, and on a regular basis we're de-escalating situations. We're refining systemic problems that serve as potential trigger points for situations worsening.
CONAN: Such as?
Dr. DEISINGER: We find that sometimes there are antiquated policies or procedures that not just our identified subject of concern is reacting negatively to but that many students or faculty or staff or visitors do. We can hold the individual accountable for...
CONAN: Give us I realize concrete examples would be interesting.
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, (unintelligible) be respectful of individual privacy...
CONAN: I'm not asking for names, but what kinds of institutional problems might you have encountered that say, well, maybe we ought to work on that?
Dr. EELLS: So Gene, let me share one that's kind of general.
Dr. DEISINGER: Sure.
Dr. EELLS: I mean, I think, you know, oftentimes, you know, for example, if a student came in, and they were dealing with a departmental policy or even an employee that was dealing with a departmental policy, and that policy was very frustrating for them, maybe around something, a benefit they are entitled to.
Dr. DEISINGER: Exactly.
Dr. EELLS: And when you review that policy and you start to look at it, and you say, well, of course, this actually is very frustrating. And then many times when you're dealing with these issues of violence, it's not - the individual isn't the question. The question is: Are they in a situation that may increase the likelihood of violence? That a lot of about what threat assessment is about is specifically looking at the situation.
So if you put someone in a situation that's highly frustrating, and there maybe are some Kafka-esque procedures that would frustrate anybody, but someone with a very low frustration tolerance that's going to contribute to their likelihood of escalation and potential likelihood of violence that you would really look at those procedures, and someone coming from a threat assessment team would not just look at the individual but would look at - what are we doing institutionally that are going to increase the likelihood of people's frustration, may increase the likelihood of a bad outcome?
So I think specific policies that are very Byzantine or really are putting a considerable, onerous burden on students or staff are things that the teams would look at, look at from a larger policy issue.
CONAN: That's Gregory Eells at Cornell University's threat assessment team. Also with us, Gene Deisinger of the director of Threat Management Services at Virginia Tech.
We'd like to hear from those of you at college or university campuses around the country. Today is there a threat assessment protocol in effect at your university or college? If so, how is it working? Have you felt the need to report a dangerous situation? If so, what happened, or what you regarded as a strange situation? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In the wake of the shooting on the campus of the University of Alabama Huntsville, we're talking today about campus threat assessment programs, systems put into place to try to prevent violent behavior, if possible.
How do they work? Are the effective? Our guests are Gregory Eells, who helped develop Cornell University's threat assessment protocol. He sits on their threat assessment team. He also directs counseling and psychological services at Cornell. Our other guest is Gene Deisinger. He directs the Threat Management Services and serves as deputy chief of police at Virginia Tech, also co-author of the book "The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment and Management Teams."
We want to hear today from professors, students. Have you ever reported threats? If there's a threat assessment program at your school, how does it work? 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Bill is on the line from Lewisville in Colorado.
BILL (Caller): Thanks for taking my call. I guess I'm coming at it from a little bit different perspective. When in the past when I've been a student and have come across, you know, being under stress, and serious people have accused me, as I found out later, that they thought I was being threatening.
And I think this is this topic is, it's pretty timely in a more general sense than beyond just the universities and colleges but in the society in general, where we're afraid to question and confront each other in a reasonable way, instead of saying well, I'm threatened by this person, or this person's making me uncomfortable, therefore, I'm going to have someone else deal with it rather than saying...
CONAN: Rather than talking to let's not put too fine a point on it you directly.
BILL: Yes, exactly.
CONAN: Okay, and what kind of behavior did you find out later people took the wrong way?
BILL: I guess I they found me intimidating and threatening. Sometimes I can have a pretty serious demeanor, and especially when I'm stressed, and they thought and may not and maybe very curt when I'm talking to someone. That may not have anything really to do with them, specifically, it just may be the stress I'm under. I mean, I've had to certainly look at my own stuff and how I interact, but certainly will...
CONAN: Who's that trying to speak here?
Dr. EELLS: This is Greg.
CONAN: Greg Eells, go ahead.
Dr. EELLS: Yeah, I think Brian's experience is not uncommon. I mean, I've seen that happen. I know Gene has, as well, where someone may be engaging in behavior, they're upset, and they may not be aware of how it's impacting someone else.
And someone may have never even taken I think the caring response by saying hey, when you're acting that way, it kind of I'm a little upset by that, or it makes me a little nervous. People may not know. The vast majority of people are not violent people. People are mostly, if they get that feedback, will respond to it, and I think sometimes in university settings, we have a tendency maybe not to be as direct as we could by just giving people that direct feedback.
I know Gene's had cases, and we've had cases here, where someone may have been engaging in behavior, and no one's ever really kind of set a firm limit on saying, you know, that's really not appropriate, and that's not okay. And that's really the most caring response.
And I think sometimes if we stay behind the scenes, it can feel much more like a big brother system, which is not what I know either Gene or I want at any college or university.
CONAN: All right, Bill, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
CONAN: And that's Ivan's point in this email from Canton, Ohio: Forecasting what people will do creates a big brother society. It also creates an atmosphere of causing trouble for people who aren't liked. For example, she had trouble making eye contact, so there must be a problem, et cetera.
Thus, the slightest hint of possible trouble or concern means the end of a person's career, possibly. Gene Deisinger?
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, I think it's important that these teams don't take that approach, Neal, and that's why we've argued for an integrated, multidisciplinary approach, so that these things don't get taken out of context, so they don't get over-responded to.
I mean, let's face it, in the last couple of years in higher education, we've seen some fear-driven approaches. If somebody raises a concern, they must pose a risk of mass violence.
And as Greg has pointed out, that's a ridiculous over-simplification of the process. These teams should be fair. They should be objective. They should be reasonable in their approaches so that they're just as likely to clear misperceptions of wrongdoing or pose a threat that a person poses, as opposed to just going out and looking for what's wrong with people. I think that's exactly the wrong approach for a team.
Dr. EELLS: And I think if we are trying to predict something, our focus is in the wrong place. It's really about assessing, based on objective information, assessing potential risk and then managing that risk because we're not going to be able to predict the future. We're not going to be able to prevent every bad thing from happening.
CONAN: Let's go next to Ken(ph), Ken calling from St.�Louis.
KEN (Caller): Hi, yes, thanks for taking my call. One of the things when I heard that your program was going to be on later, which is this program, that I looked up to see if we have a threat, you know, assessment program at our university. And there's a lot of talk about, you know, different things that have happened, like at Virginia Tech and this thing last week - or two weeks ago.
And we, you know, we have a person in our department that has threatened suicide, has threatened to, you know, I hate to say this, but cause bodily harm on somebody else, you know, within the department.
And this person has been to counseling - refused to go to counseling. You know, there's various other times that this person has been told to go but, you know, doesn't go to counseling, doesn't receive counseling, but she continues to be a person of concern, that any right-minded person would say wow, you know, this person really needs counseling or something.
CONAN: And what has so apparently, nothing much has been done?
KEN: No. And you know, it's, you know, she's very moody, very you know, right forward in her, you know, ability to, you know, stress to us the importance of her frustration and things like that. And so we've reported it, but there's really nothing the university has done.
CONAN: Greg Eells, any advice for Ken?
Dr. EELLS: Well, yeah, I mean, I think one, some of this is just the difficulty and the difficult reality of these situations, because all of us, I mean, you're confronting these two different dilemmas. You don't want to be have a big brother approach. People have individual rights. They have rights to deal with their own mental health issues.
You know, that being said, I think the things that Gene and I are talking about advocating for is a systemic approach to responding to that, where a team would get together, weigh all that information and then come together with a collective decision involving, in this case if it's an employee, an HR issue, and doing some things, considering all the literature on threat assessment, to take some steps.
I think sometimes what happens is people get afraid and don't want to respond. And I think what we're talking about is having a team that has training and has some of the information on how to respond and come up with some ways that are effective in responding to these situations.
That being said, many times, it's very difficult, that you don't have just one clear answer that you can take care of this. I mean, getting someone off your campus doesn't necessarily make you any safer. It may make you less safe. So finding ways to work within the system may actually be the best course of action.
CONAN: Ken, we wish you the best of luck.
KEN (Caller): Well, thank you very much. Take care.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Walter(ph) in Newcastle, California. Private industry has experienced many episodes of violence, often by employees or former employees. Is their situation any different from colleges? Have they done much in threat reduction? Can campuses learn from them? Gene Deisinger?
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, I think Walter is right on the money. In fact, many of the models that we turned to at Iowa State back in the mid-1990s were based on what was happening in the larger industry, in the workplace violence models that were there, and ironically enough, some really outstanding work that was being done at the United States Postal Service through the 1980s, into the early 1990s.
Many of the workplace violence prevention models, threat assessment teams, are based on those initial concepts, and they've been refined and enhanced with research and practice over time.
I think higher education can learn a lot from our corporate cousins and siblings about what they have done to try to have early intervention problems, to recognize developing problems just as our K-through-12 cousins went through this, remember, a decade ago, in the post-Columbine era.
CONAN: Sure. Yeah. Let's go next to Jeremy. Jeremy's calling us from Virginia.
JEREMY (Caller): Yes, hi. I'm here in Virginia. I'd prefer not to give the city because what I was calling about is we have threat assessment -actually I'm leaving school right now. We have a threat assessment program, I think that's what they call it at our school here in Virginia. But students that I have talked to have found it wholly I guess they would say wholly inadequate in terms of not that it's not that the program itself is completely flawed but that it's not enough for the students to feel safe, considering Virginia Tech, and so they conceal-carry.
CONAN: Conceal-carry weapons?
JEREMY: Against, obviously, school policy, which is why I'd prefer not to discuss the school.
CONAN: No, I understand, but...
JEREMY: But yeah, and I've seen guns. I've seen students who carry, and to be totally honest with you, having had in-depth discussions with students, it does scare you to the extent that I'm not scared of them. I'm scared of a repeat of Virginia Tech to the extent that I probably would be breaking school policy and carrying a gun if I didn't know that my friends already were.
I don't have to break school policies or laws because I know other people already are, the point being that students on campuses, or campi I guess you would say...
CONAN: You are a student.
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JEREMY: Yeah, that they don't feel safe, that they don't feel comfortable, and as your guests have pointed out, you know, these threat assessments, obviously they do work, but the problem is it's much like terrorism. It only takes one time for an incident to result in, you know, mass casualties, for example. And the question is whether you want to put your life in the hands of - you know, hoping that we get it right every time.
My grandfather was a Keystone cop in Hollywood, one of the actors in the silent films era. And I remember watching on TV at Virginia Tech as a police officer ran back and forth looking at the building there in Virginia Tech, trying to decide how he was going to get in, and it just repeats in my mind over and over again. And I would not want to be in that position at the - just at the mercy and hope that everybody got it right.
CONAN: Well, let me ask first some response from our guest. Greg Eells?
Dr. EELLS: Well, I think one of the things the caller's talking about is our own feelings of safety, which is completely understandable. And again, I think some of that goes to how we think as human beings about risk. I mean, these kind of targeted violence events are very, very rare. You know, I think about it much like how we, you know, how we get afraid to fly when we ride in cars all the time and we're 10 - you know, thousands times greater risk. And the likelihood of something like that happening on a campus is pretty low. And carrying a firearm, you know, Gene knows as a police officer, doesn't make you safer. You're much more likely to shoot yourself or one of your friends.
So, you know, I think I would, you know, challenge you to think about your own safety, think about some of the ways in which you can, you know, advocate within your school, within your system to make those -the kind of changes. I mean, Virginia mandates these teams on all of their state campuses. And I think in some ways having those teams is a very effective response. But is it going to make everyone safe all the time? No. Are you still going to feel unsafe at some point? Yes. I think using those specific instances to kind of generate a general strategy isn't necessarily effective.
CONAN: Gene Deisinger, do you think that there are kids who carry concealed weapons at Virginia Tech?
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, of course, they are. And Jeremy's comment illustrates that. Guns are now, and have been before the Virginia Tech incident, have been on campus. I don't think that that makes us any safer, frankly, but it certainly represents the fears are out there and some of the fear-driven responses.
I mean, taking Greg's analogy in a little bit different way about flying, we know that occasionally, planes crash with catastrophic incident. And yet, I don't have any desire the next time I get on the plane to become the pilot to assure my own safety. And I think that the carrying of gun when you're not used to all the responsibility that comes with that and all the challenges that come with that is akin to trying to be a pilot when you're not used to flying a plane.
CONAN: Jeremy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
JEREMY: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about threat assessment on college campuses.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Here's an email, this from anonymous: I was threatened by a student. I'm not giving details, so as not to be identified. The student was military-obsessed, and believed he was part of an elite Special Forces intelligence unit. The police came. They determined he was not an immediate threat. He continued as a student with no psychological intervention. When I called to get my copy of the police report, I was told it would be ready in a few days. When I called back in a few days, I was told there was no police report because there was no serious incident. The union didn't do anything. I quit immediately, figuring it's best to disappear and get away from the student. I no longer teach on a college campus. It was an eye-opening experience.
And no reason to believe, Gene Deisinger, he's talking about any of the places you have worked. But do you think that this former teacher acted the right way?
Dr. DEISINGER: Well, if what he's described is an accurate representation of what he faced, it's unfortunate. But it, again, illustrates that no one - and whether it's the police, whether it's the counseling department - by itself is likely able to fully assess whether a threat is present. My guess is - without knowing the situation that our writer is referencing there - is that police really probably looked at that as: Was a crime committed that they could do anything about? But that's a separate question in terms of whether or not there are interventions that can be done to mitigate the risk, regardless of whether there's a crime.
Many police departments, such as the one I served on in Iowa State and the one at Tech, are focused on preventing crime to the extent that we can. And I think that's a more responsible position for law enforcement. But we do that in partnership with others across the - across our community. It wouldn't make that determination based solely on the law enforcement response.
CONAN: Okay. Let's go to...
Dr. EELLS: And one thing - I'd like to just add to that real quick. I think one of the reasons why these teams are effective is that it may not just - with these teams, it wouldn't just stop with this, that this threat may then be taken to some other to have some discussion about it. So something different may happen at a college or university - hopefully would happen at a college or university that has one of these threat-assessment teams.
CONAN: The next time, anyway. Eric's on the line, calling from Berkeley.
ERIC (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Eric.
ERIC: Hi. You know, I was a - an employee of the University of California for many years, mostly as a - an academic counselor. And in my experience, frustration is best dealt with with definite procedures that students know they can follow easily if they have a complaint or if they want to defend themselves from a complaint. And that usually involves two different points of view. And each point of view has to be - has to have an advocate, one on each side in order to calm the situation and present the facts impartially so that each person is treated impartially and the issues can be aired clearly. I think that's - I think it's vital.
ERIC: And I think if students know that they have those options, things go a lot more smoothly. There's a lot less trouble. But the problem is this...
CONAN: Very quickly, if you would.
ERIC: ...that this is expensive, that it takes time and money and energy, and there are very few bureaucracies who are willing, you know, who have the political will to diminish their own forceful manipulation of students.
CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off, Eric, we just have a few seconds left. I wanted to ask Greg Eells if that's the way it works at Cornell, and if he agrees with Eric.
Dr. EELLS: Well, I think - I mean, he's right in the sense that having clear, transparent procedures where people know what's expected of them, they know how to ask for what they want, they know how to get what they want, they know how to find advocates in the system, I think, are essential.
And being in an academic adviser role, that's definitely a role that our academic advisers play in advocating for students and helping them sort through what sometimes can be a bureaucracy at any institution for higher education, which can greatly increase people's frustration, which, you know, in some instances, is going to make someone potentially more likely to act out violently, even though - even that may be rare.
CONAN: Eric, I'm sorry to cut you off, but we were running out of time. Appreciate the phone call.
Our guests today were Gregory Eells, you just heard him, member of the Cornell University threat assessment team who helped develop Cornell University's threat assessment protocol, director of counseling and psychological services at that university, joined us from a studio on the campus. Thanks very much for your time today.
Dr. EELLS: Thank you.
CONAN: Also heard from Gene Deisinger, director of Threat Management Services at Virginia Tech, from a studio in Blacksburg. Appreciate your time, as well.
Dr. DEISINGER: Neal, glad to be here.
CONAN: When we come back, the next in our series on Oscar-nominated documentaries. This is NPR News.
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