Campus Threat Assessment: Considerations for Administrators

ACPAAdmin/ September 13, 2019/ Volume 17

Roger “Mitch” Nasser Jr, PhD
Lindenwood University

One of the most challenging responsibilities for student affairs practitioners today is emergency management. The concern over student safety, liability, and possible lawsuits creates a mentality of perfection. Unfortunately, federal expectations and precedent may further confuse professionals. Where should professionals turn for advice on emergency management? What are best practices? How should institutions progress from prevention to recovery? The following article provides an overview of campus threat assessment, a subsidiary of emergency management. First, I provide a definition of emergency management. Next, I discuss threat assessment as a concept on college campuses and explain a threat assessment model which may be applied to institutions. I then review recent court cases illustrating the federal government’s support of efforts of higher education professionals. Next, I examine student response to campus threat assessment with specific attention to incorporation of social media. Finally, I provide recommendations for practice and discussion questions.

Defining Emergency Management

Emergency management refers to the overall examination of crisis events impacting a specific entity. These events include: natural disasters, climate shifts, epidemics, fire/flood, human crisis issues such as active shooters, and community specific crisis such as train derailments or downed aircraft. Haddow, Bullock, and Coppola (2008) defined emergency management as:

The discipline dealing with risk and risk avoidance. Risk represents a broad range of issues and includes an equally diverse set of players. The range of situations that could possibly involve emergency management or the emergency management system is extensive. This supports the premise that emergency management is integral to the security of everyone’s daily lives and should be integrated into daily decisions and not just called on during times of disaster. (p. 2)

This definition suggests emergency management is an ongoing process involving a diverse pool of experts. Too often, professionals responding to an emergency may assume primary responsibility for analysis and decision making. Higher education administrators must understand this process is a shared responsibility. The shared responsibility is essential when examining threat assessment.

Threat Assessment

The concept of threat assessment is often confused with emergency management. In essence, threat assessment is a component of emergency management. Threat assessment in higher education administration originated as a departmental responsibility. Each department (i.e. residence life, public safety, judicial affairs) developed a plan of identification and response but were not required to share structure with other departments (Asmussen & Creswell, 1995). However, the attack at Virginia Tech in 2007 highlighted the importance of threat assessment and brought it to the forefront of institutional thinking. The federal government created recommendations in the aftermath of this tragedy, including the formation of threat assessment teams (Kaminski, Koons-Witt, Thompson, & Weiss, 2010).   Student affairs practitioners, specifically senior level administrators, are seen as experts in threat assessment and often chair these teams (Hughes, Brymer, Chiu, Fairbank, Jones, Pynoos, & Kessler, 2011).

Research indicated inclusion of student affairs officials in threat assessment teams is important (Dunkle, Silverstein, & Warner, 2008). However, because these teams are a shared responsibility of prevention, the teams must include a variety of personnel able to respond to campus crisis (Deisinger, Randazzo, O’Neill, & Savage, 2008; Lipka, 2009). The diversification of team membership addresses possible overreaction to campus crisis. While institutional leaders are expected to act on information about potential threats, they must see each situation as unique and avoid panic in decision making (Cornell, 2010; Deisinger et al., 2008). In addition, leadership on these committees should rotate to avoid member burnout (Keller, Hughes, & Hertz, 2011). Threat assessment teams, once formed, should consider how they will approach situations.

Threat Assessment Models

Several theorists and government agencies have offered guidance on threat assessment teams. I will highlight one model for the purpose of this article. Cornell (2010) offered a model which is easily adaptable for institutions. While this model focuses on threat assessment, it may be applied to other emergency situations as well. The model is broken into four steps. First, the threat assessment team must identify the threat or crisis by gathering all information pertinent to the issue.  Information must be gathered from all sources available to the team. The team should review all information while avoiding assumptions which could lead to overreaction and excessive sanctions. Examples of this step may include review of a student’s judicial record for threat assessment or long range weather forecast for a hurricane.

Second, the team must evaluate the seriousness of the threat or crisis. This step may involve conducting interviews with witnesses of concerning behavior or a historical review of a particular student’s behavior at the institution. Cornell (2010) suggested this step as key in determining seriousness of a threat. He mentioned two types of campus threats. Transient threats are those which pass as unfounded, such as inappropriate jokes or emotional outbursts. Substantive threats are more serious due to significant information such as directed threat or repeated statements. Examples of step two include speaking with witnesses regarding a student threat or reviewing building structures for stability in a weather event.

The third step of the model is intervention. The threat assessment team should contact community members impacted by the threat as a means of risk reduction. Reduction of the threat is essential as prevention is not possible in all cases. Examples of this step include addressing the safety of possible targets during threat assessment or closing campus buildings during an impending weather disaster. The final step in Cornell’s (2010) model is to follow up after the event. Team members should speak with students, faculty, and staff involved for plan review. The committee examines options for improvement and acts accordingly.

Cornell’s (2010) threat assessment plan is successful only through support from senior level administrators (Baker & Boland, 2011; Cornell, 2010; Deisinger et al., 2008; Keller et al., 2011). The support from these administrators may be financial, verbal, or participatory as committee members. This support creates a validity and motivation for team performance. In addition, institutions must conduct campus wide training to increase reporting by community members. Students, staff, and faculty may be unaware of guidelines, forms, or processes for reporting. Establishing clarity is key for assessment success (Baker & Boland, 2011; Cornell, 2010; Deisinger et al., 2008; Keller et al., 2011). Once threat assessment teams decide how they will address situations, they must consider legal ramifications of their responsibilities.

The Courts are on Our Side

The key legal construct in threat assessment for consideration is negligence. According to Kaplan and Lee (2007), negligence consists of three factors. First, the institution must have a duty of care to another person such as a student. Second, the institution must fail in providing that duty. Finally, the failure of duty directly causes injury to the individual (p. 674). The authors stress all three components must be present for violation to occur. A review of selected court cases may offer clarification.

The courts reviewed institutional responsibility in Shivers v University of Cincinnati (2006). Shivers, a student at the University, was the victim of a rape in a residence hall, specifically in the communal shower area. She claimed the institution failed in a duty of care suggesting the bathrooms did not have proper locking mechanisms. However, the suspect in the case was an unknown person to both the victim and institution. The court ruled in favor of the institution as the incident could not be foreseen. This decision supported the idea of knowledge driven responsibility. Since the institution had no previous knowledge of the suspect, the University did not have a duty (Shivers, 2006).

Institutions are supported in acting on suspicion without substantial evidence. In Krainski v Nevada ex rel. Board of Regents of Nevada System of Higher Education (2010), the court ruled an institution could address a perceived threat prior to final findings. The plaintiff was arrested after making threatening remarks about her roommate, including using scissors to injure the roommate. The comments were shared with the roommate and police were contacted. Krainski was arrested pending final investigation. She sued suggesting her comments should not have been shared and the arrest was unwarranted. The court ruled in favor of the institution. This ruling indicated protection for institutions utilizing quick action in resolving threatening situations.

Finally, administrators may feel an expectation to predict future incidents with little or no information. This unrealistic responsibility causes fear of litigation and stress. The courts appeared to remove this responsibility in the final decision of Commonwealth of Virginia v Peterson (2013). The family of Erin Peterson, a victim in the Virginia Tech shooting, sued the institution over claims of negligence. This case addressed two factors of negligence in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy. First, the family suggested the institution had a duty to protect the community through notification. When the institution did not send a timely notification, a breach of duty resulted. The institution maintained the first shootings indicated a domestic dispute which had reached resolution according to information available. In essence, the institution could not have predicted the subsequent attacks based on the data available. Originally, the court ruled in favor of the families, but the decision was reversed on appeal in favor of the institution (Commonwealth, 2013). The court agreed the institution acted on the information in a reasonable manner. These rulings suggest administrators are not responsible for absolute prediction of events. The next step in threat assessment planning is examining student perspective.

Student Response to Threat Assessment

Research has indicated a disconnect with student opinion on threat assessment and that of higher education professionals (Baker & Boland, 2011; Kaminski et al., 2010). While professionals may believe safety concerns impact enrollment, student response suggests no connection. In fact, students view campus crisis as infrequent and less impactful (Baker & Boland, 2011; Kaminski et al., 2010). Students understand faculty and staff cannot control behavior. Furthermore, research suggested students do not see importance in threat assessment tools such as emergency text messaging. Many institutions have implemented this procedure or other mass notification systems as a means of emergency communication (Fox & Savage, 2009). Unfortunately, students do not see the value (Mark, 2008).

Students also struggle in reporting critical campus issues. Perhaps they have concerns regarding anonymity, impact to classmates, or simply do not believe situations warrant reporting. A study by Baker and Boland (2011) found critical incident reporting from faculty members doubled that of students. This lack of reporting by students may be detrimental to institutions. Students do not have the same restrictions in reporting as faculty and staff. Professional staff must consider FERPA in reporting, while students may have more flexibility in reporting more freely (Tribbensee & McDonald, 2007). One caveat is that student employees may qualify as mandatory reporters of incidents when they are considered to be university officials (Kaplan & Lee, 2007).

The Use of Social Media in Emergency Response

Higher education administrators must consider all options in their threat assessment plans, specifically regarding notification. The development of social media and rise in its use provides institutions with alternate methods of notification. Studies have suggested the use of mobile platforms such as Facebook and Twitter aid in critical response, recovery, and dissemination of information during a natural disaster (Kelleher, 2009; Procopio & Procopio, 2007; Smith, 2010). A recent study conducted by Pepper (2012) discussed credibility of communication from official sources versus other sources. The research concluded information regarding emergencies communicated by public safety officers to the campus community was viewed as more credible than other sources. This study appeared to validate the usefulness of social media during campus emergency situations. While the study focused on public safety officers, Pepper (2012) suggested social media is useful for other university professionals.

Page (2013) examined the use of social media, specifically Twitter, in the aftermath of the Aurora movie theatre tragedy. Her study suggested social media was essential in communicating information regarding the tragedy. Furthermore, she indicated a higher use of neutral messages, or those that were purely informational rather than those exuding bias. This finding indicates that those consuming social media updates in the midst of an unfolding emergency response are likely seeking informational reports rather than looking to place blame and judgment on the response process. Higher education professionals may consider social media as a tool for communication during and after an emergency situation, especially if students choose against an emergency text system. Threat assessment teams might consider adopting use of social media in their planning; however, this technique may be useless without credibility and student buy-in. Higher education administrators must establish credibility by sharing emergency planning with students, staff, faculty, and community members on a regular basis for notification procedures to prove effective.

Recommendations for Practice

I propose four considerations for practice based on the information provided in this article. First, emergency management including threat assessment is a shared administrative responsibility among faculty and staff. While student affairs practitioners may have specific expertise in understanding student behavior, they should not bear the main responsibility for analysis or intervention. There should be space for faculty to be involved in the threat assessment process either as members of the threat assessment team or by participating in training opportunities. This involvement increases the credibility of threat assessment procedures. The collaboration of faculty and staff also improves student understanding of threat assessment. Second, higher education administrators may place undue pressure on themselves for identification and prevention of future emergencies. Perhaps we, as faculty and staff in higher education, self-impose this responsibility as opposed to it being set before us.

Third, we must consider options for training, if the student reporting challenge is viable. Students are the focal point of our positions and the reason for our profession. Professionals may use their expertise in designing ways to reach today’s students. Student affairs administrators must collaborate with law enforcement to instruct students regarding reporting incidents. Faculty might hold class discussions on emergency response in introductory courses. Student leaders may contribute through sharing instances where they reported concerns to administrators. Educating students through discussion and avoiding panic is essential to programmatic development.

Finally, student affairs practitioners should consider use of social media in notification of campus emergencies. The studies cited suggested students and community members both seek and respond to information via social media. The responsibility to engage our students in this method is elevated if students do not elect to sign up for emergency texting systems.

Conclusion

Student affairs practitioners may feel discomfort with the topic of threat assessment on campus. Administrators might fear legal repercussions for decision making, which may impact reputation, financial stability, and employment. Staff may also have concerns regarding ensuring student safety. As higher education professionals, we must understand that we may not have the ability to guarantee student safety. If we perform at our best and act on information appropriately, we will meet legal expectations. The threat assessment model shared in this article provides a starting point for administrators designing response or those evaluating current processes.

Threat assessment is only a small part of emergency management. Techniques must shift with the times, rendering the future of threat assessment undetermined. Advances in technology, challenges in reporting, and involvement of the entire campus community ask us to consider the best plan for our individual campuses. Practitioners may feel undue pressure or confusion regarding processes and responsibilities. I am hopeful this article serves to quell fears and provide directions for planning.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the threat assessment plan at your institution? How should this plan be improved or adjusted in light of the information presented in this article?
  • How do you communicate with students in an emergency? Are students receptive to notifications? What techniques might you add in order to reach a greater audience?
  • Do your students understand the importance of reporting incidents? How might you increase reporting?
  • How collaborative is your threat assessment plan? How might you improve partnerships?

Author Bio

Dr. Roger “Mitch” Nasser Jr. is Assistant Professor and Program Chair of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership at Lindenwood University. Mitch served as a student affairs administrator in residence life, judicial affairs, and academic advising for 18 years prior to becoming a faculty member. His research interests include threat assessment, supervision, and social justice education.

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