Establishing Threat Assessment and Mental Health Group Teams on Campus
November 15, 2012
As campuses struggle with threats and safety, and how to appropriately address these concerns, The Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA) has released a new report titled "Balancing Safety and Support on Campus: A Guide for Campus Teams." After the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008, colleges across the country began forming threat assessment teams to specifically address mental health and safety on campus. Generally, the purpose of these teams is to prevent disturbing behaviors from falling through the cracks and to connect dissimilar pieces of information that may indicate a more serious issue in hopes of deterring a dangerous outcome. However, attempting to balance both has not been without challenges. Realizing that these newly created teams needed assistance on how to function from a mental health perspective, HEMHA created this guide to help campuses manage safety and make informed decisions.
Each campus should manage threat assessment teams according to university needs, size, student body, and staff; however, HEMHA established the following core components that are pertinent to all university teams:
- Scope and Structure: Will the team have a specific focus on threat assessment and offer a direct response? Or will it have a much broader structure and attempt to address a wide range of problems for students and staff? Neither is right or wrong, and the answer depends on the needs of each campus.
- Team Name: The name must accurately capture the team's scope and purpose.
- Selecting Participants: Teams should be multi-disciplinary and should help improve communication and coordination across the campus. Try to include people who have the most access to information such as deans, counseling directors, housing directors, etc.
- Team Function: Decide what the team will do before, during, and after an intervention; develop policies and procedures to govern the team's work; identify special challenges for commuter and community colleges; and promote a culture of caring.
One of the major parts to forming a threat assessment team is establishing its functions. However, as the guide points out, identifying, monitoring, and offering assessment isn't always a linear process, and can have many complex issues and responses. Additionally, while campuses want to be more vigilant about observing and responding to students who have shown signs of mental distress, laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Healthy Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protects student education and medical information. However, there are instances when these rules do not apply (i.e., there's a threat to the individual student or those around him or her). Further, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has more serious restrictions that prevent teams from initiating disciplinary procedures and/or placing students on leave of absence. Campus legal counsel should be consulted in these matters.
As the guide points out, there is currently no national federal mandate that requires campus safety teams on campus, but such legislation might eventually arise under the Clery Act.
Lastly, experts said campus teams should be aware of obstacles they might encounter - here are a few common pitfalls:
- Failure to properly select, prepare and orient team members.
- Too much focus on reporting as the end result.
- Stigmatization of mental illness and lack of focus on behavior.
- Failure to follow up.
"Balancing Safety and Support on Campus" will help both established and newly-created campus safety teams bridge the gap between mental health and campus safety. The guide also includes the models implemented at Cornell University and University of North Texas as successful examples to follow. A full copy of the report is available on the HEMHA web site.
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