By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
When Amy Bishop, 42, brought a handgun to a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and killed her co-workers on Feb. 12, it was a brutal reminder of how tenuous a grasp we all have on threat assessment.
As is the case with so many campus shooters, Bishop had left her share of red flags planted next to the roadside along the way. Fatally shooting her 18-year-old brother in the chest in 1986 with a shotgun was one indication. Being within sniffing distance of charges in the 1993 mailing of pipe bombs to a Harvard professor another. In the aftermath of the Huntsville shootings, a federal prosecutor in Massachusetts ordered that pipe bomb case reopened--clearly a case of too little, too late.
So why weren't the appropriate authorities tipped off?
When to report suspicious behavior without running afoul of the law will continue to be one of the most crucial and difficult aspects of university risk management, whether it's a student or an employee who has decided that murder is the only way out of their unique psychological hell.
According to Alyssa Keehan, risk management counsel for the Bethesda, Md.-based United Educators, a mutual that insures well north of 1,000 colleges and universities, workplace violence threat assessment teams were in place at most universities well before many student threat assessment teams were formed, many in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings that galvanized the nation in April 2008.
In fact, Keehan can't recall one university of the more than 20 she spoke to that didn't have a workplace violence threat assessment team when she created an abstract on student threat assessment teams for United Educators.
The lack of assessment teams isn't the issue; it's where and how to report unusual behavior.
"I think the biggest challenge for these teams overall is in educating potential reporters on campus about the types of behavior that they want reported and who to report it to," said Keehan in an interview with Risk & Insurance® on Feb. 25.
"People are reluctant to come forward with information a lot of the time. They feel like they are sounding the alarm or they are making a mountain out of a molehill. A lot of times, it is getting people to overcome that inertia and bringing pieces of information forward," Keehan said.
So, how do we empower or enable people to bring information forward safely and legally? One way is to keep it simple. Keehan said that she sees many well-intended threat assessment teams that create thick, intimidating manuals advising students and faculty on how and when to report threats.
In those cases a potential reporter might fail to report something because they feel like they don't understand the instructions. Or they might not read the manual at all.
Keehan advises to take the post-Sept. 11 approach of the New York Transit Authority and its mantra: "If you see something, say something."
Another crucial piece is to know the law. In the abstract she wrote for United Educators, Keehan said threat assessment team members should be conversant in state tort law affecting negligence standards, be familiar with the conditions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and know state and federal medical confidentiality laws.
It's always good practice, but Keehan also advises that institutions confer with their general counsels for training on the requirements of state and federal law as those laws relate to information sharing.
February 26, 2010
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