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Assessing threats on college campuses includes Utah schools

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 7:08 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — In the aftermath of the Aurora, Colo. massacre, reports have surfaced this week that alleged shooter James Holmes was referred to a behavior assessment team by his psychiatrist at the University of Colorado weeks before the tragic incident.

According to the reports, the University of Colorado Behavioral Assessment and Threat Evaluation (BETA) team ended its evaluation of Holmes after he withdrew from school.

"It does become a difficulty when a student leaves campus," said Ryan Randall, a behavioral intervention specialist at the University of Utah.

The shooting in Colorado has cast a light on such programs as the nation seeks ways to identify potential threats and prevent violent attacks.

But David Bush, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Utah State University, said that while university staff and faculty offer what help they can and watch for warning signs, an individual's actions are ultimately unpredictable.

"I think some people have this fantasy that you can predict violence and the research says you can't," he said. "What we do is, we do our best."

Annie Christensen, dean of students at the University of Utah, said that for years the school had a crises management team but after the Virginia Tech shootings, officials decided a more proactive body was necessary. Their team now meets weekly with representatives of campus police and the Counseling Center.

Christensen said it's impossible to know what someone will do, but she feels confident in the team's ability to intervene and get students the help they need.

"It's something I think about every day," she said, referring to the Virginia and Colorado tragedies. "I think we are prepared. I think we have the right people and the right process."

But that process only works, she said, when the team is made aware of a problem before it occurs. Christensen couldn't speak about specific cases, but said the team has seen a number of success stories.

"We can act on the information we have, but we've got to have that information," she said.

Lauren Weitzman, director of the University of Utah's Counseling Center, said students should feel comfortable visiting the Counseling Center. She said most of the students the staff works with are typically dealing with everyday stresses and red flags are only raised when a student expresses an intention to cause injury to themselves or others. 

Eric Olsen, associate vice president for Student Services at USU, said university assessment teams work to ensure a safe environment for students, faculty and staff. He said that some universities already had assessment teams, but the practice has become commonplace in the past four to five years.

"It really became industry standard best practice post-Virginia Tech," he said.

Utah State's University's Behavioral Intervention Team, or BIT, includes Olsen, USU's Police Chief and representatives from the school's counseling center, disability resource center, and faculty. Olsen said the team meets at least once each month to review reports of students who have exhibited alarming behavior and to decide if counseling or police intervention are necessary.

The university uses an online tool to create "Student of Concern" reports, Olsen said. He said the majority of reports are made by professors and faculty members, but the system is also available for students who are worried about their friends, roommates or classmates.

Team members are alerted when a report is filed and the USU Police department monitors the reports "24/7" in case of an emergency, Olsen said. The BIT is not intended to be punitive, but instead to help students receive the help that they need. 

"It's not used as a vehicle to suspend students from school," Olsen said. "Usually it deals with threats of violence or threats to cause harm to other people or themselves."

Randall agreed, saying that in most cases police action is not required and the team will work with counselors and campus services to help students.

"We're here to support students," he said. "We want students to succeed."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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