University of Iowa forms threat-assessment team

The University of Iowa plans to launch a threat-assessment team to prevent potentially violent situations in response to the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University.

The team will assess individuals who may be contemplating aggressive behavior, train faculty, staff, and students in diffusing complicated situations, and consult with anyone worried about a potentially violent individual.

The UI is hiring two threat-assessment team managers - one with a mental-health background and the other with a law-enforcement background - to start by October, said Teresa Kulper, an assistant director of UI Human Resources.

"Our hope is that the team will serve as a sole place on campus that people can turn to if they are scared for or worried about a student, or a faculty/staff member," she said.

The threat-assessment group will be made up of the two new hirings as well as Thomas Baker, associate dean of students, Charles Green, the assistant vice president for the UI police, and Kulper, who worked in the behavior-risk-management program.

UI police Lt. Peter Berkson has already been tapped as one of the team managers; the other position is still undecided.

Kulper said the second team manager should be hired by October.

The idea of a threat-assessment team has been around for a while in K-12 schools, but it came to fore with universities after the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois shootings, said Marisa Randazzo, the president of Threat-Assessment Resources International.

After the April 16, 2007, massacre in Virgina, Gov. Chet Culver asked Iowa universities to review all aspects of safety procedures on campus.

Green presented the "Report of the Study of Campus Security Protocols" to the state Board of Regents at its September 2007 meeting. With that measure, the UI asked for a threat-assessment team.

The university dedicated $500,000 to security this year, part of which will be used on the threat-assessment group.

Randazzo, a former head-researcher at the U.S. Secret Service, has studied school violence extensively. She helped complete the Safe School Initiative, a study of school shootings and other school-based attacks in the United States from 1974 through 2000, analyzing a total of 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers.

From that study, she found that most attackers showed signs of depression, suicidal thoughts, or violence prior to the attack.

"Some kind of unusual behavior was observed before those students lashed out - their attacks weren't impulsive," Randazzo said.

Although there was a bit of a spike in interest in threat-assessment teams after the Virginia Tech killings, there was a massive jump after the shootings at Northern Illinois.

"I think universities are just realizing that there are things they can, and should, do to prevent horrific school violence," she said.

When the team managers start at the UI, they will go through training and conduct research on how to put a successful program together, Kulper said. They will also carry out training sessions with resident assistants, teaching assistants, faculty, and staff, she said, adding they haven't decided whether it will be mandated or optional.

The main goal of the program is to ensure people know they have a specific place to turn if they are worried, Kulper said. Once the team receives a concern, the members will talk to people involved and properly notify the person of resources available to her or him.

"Of course, each situation will be really sensitive," she said. "The program isn't successful unless the troubled person is on board to get help."

(C) 2008 The Daily Iowan via UWIRE