Threat-assessment groups cropping up nationwide

Schools are taking more caution with students in response to Virginia Tech.

Ahnalese Rushmann

The Virginia Tech shooting that resulted in 33 student and faculty deaths last April left university officials across the country re-examining their emergency preparedness systems.

But what about finding problems before such incidents happen? Since Virginia Tech, several colleges, including the University, have formed groups to monitor potentially harmful students.

The University of Illinois-Chicago, Boston University and the University of Kentucky are among schools that have recently created such groups, said Kaaryn Sonan, spokeswoman for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

“You can’t really go to a campus in this country post-Virginia Tech and not see a threat-assessment group,” she said.

The University created the Behavioral Intervention-Threat Assessment Team in October 2007.

Virginia Tech had a major role in sparking the group’s inception, group facilitator Sharon Dzik said.

The team is part of the Office for Student Affairs and is comprised of Dzik and representatives from the Office of General Counsel, the University Police Department and counselors.

The young group is already seeing progress in centralizing the communication process, she said.

“We actually get a number of phone calls to our office,” Dzik said, adding that the group fields around two calls per week from people concerned about other students.

Usually, only one of the weekly complaints requires further, serious investigation, she said. Most calls have been from teachers concerned about students.

One of the biggest effects Virginia Tech had was on the Family Educational Rights and Policy Act, or FERPA, Sonan said.

On March 24, the U.S. Department of Education proposed new regulations to clarify when universities may release confidential student information, a move prompted by Virginia Tech.

Psychologist Mary Bolin-Reece, director of the University of Kentucky Counseling and Testing Center, is a member of Students of Concern – a threat-assessment group created late last month.

Prior to the group’s formation, she said the school had an informal communication system when it came to potentially harmful student matters.

Narrow interpretations of FERPA might have previously hampered communications at schools, Bolin-Reece said. Now, FERPA loosens confidentiality restrictions if lives appear to be at risk.

“After the tragedy at Virginia Tech, criticism centered on that campus not being able to ‘connect the dots’ that were represented by persons who had specific concerns about (gunman Seung-Hui Cho),” she said. “If you don’t have the info, it’s kind of hard to act.”

“The whole idea of this Students of Concern committee is to connect the dots,” she said.

With much attention focused on preventing large-scale incidents, Bolin-Reece said less dramatic, isolated situations can’t be overlooked.

Student substance abuse, eating disorders and suicidal behaviors are just as serious, she said, because they have “a ripple effect” on friends, families, teachers and classmates.

The University’s threat assessment team is still developing its image on campus, Dzik said, adding that the group is acting as an information gatherer right now but needs to establish whether it’ll be a resource for concerned students.

The University already has several mental health resources, Dzik said. If students are concerned about another student, they should tell an authority figure on campus, whether that’s a teacher, a community adviser or a counselor.