The Challenges of Tracking Potentially Dangerous People

With the Tucson, Ariz., shootings, the nation was once again witness to a mass homicide that had connections to an Institution of Higher Education (IHE).

MSNBC reported, “a thread running through the documents is the difficulty of campus police to find a context in which to intervene: Until they found a violation of the student code of conduct, or a state law, police officers wrote in the reports that they weren’t sure what else they could do, even when a fellow student said she thought Loughner had brought a knife to class. (Not dissimilar from the confusion at Virginia Tech as it tried to deal with Seung-Hui Cho.)”

Individuals With Mental Health Issues Still Have Civil Liberties

The main issue here centers on civil liberties. Adult IHE students do not lose their civil liberties when they become part of an IHE campus community, nor are they minor children under the care and supervision of their parents or guardians. We need to remember that. This is about individual, adult responsibility. There are limitations in what can be done when a young adult has a medical/health or mental health issue and chooses to act out. People have rights to determine the care, if any, they may accept or reject related to behavioral issues until they present criminally threatening behavior, or become a danger to themselves or others. The laws vary in each state as to involuntary commitment and other civil liberty (mental health) issues.

Bottom line: Colleges and universities are not K-12 campuses. We are dealing with young adults who have the same rights as you and me. Colleges and universities remain some of the safest communities in our nation, and they have many laws, standards and other policies that few, if any cities or municipalities have in place, or responsibility to address. Beyond the Stafford Act, IHEs have the Higher Education Act of 2008, the Clery Act, and many other stringent standards to deal with. Add a hospital to your campus, and you have HIPAA to deal with. Mental health falls under both HIPAA and FERPA in IHE communities as a health and safety issue.

Crisis Management Process is Murky Due to Privacy Issues

Most IHEs won’t discuss the threat assessment or crisis management process primarily due to student and health privacy concerns and a need to know basis. Student privacy is vigorously protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). We can acknowledge that crisis management teams are in place, and they are utilized under a variety of state laws, education codes, and other standards and practices. Many of these issues were revisited following the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007. If a student were to be brought into a crisis management setting, it would be not discussed or acknowledged.

The following is taken in part from the U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Department of Education, and FBI Joint Report (April 2010) on Campus Attacks…(open source):

(excerpt) “Many colleges and universities have developed multidisciplinary crisis management teams, integrating and ensuring communication between the university law enforcement or campus security agency, student affairs, residential housing, counseling centers, health centers, legal counsel, and any other appropriate campus community entities to review individuals and incidents which may indicate “at-risk” behavior in the campus community.”

“FERPA does not prohibit a school official from disclosing information about a student if the information is obtained through the school officials’ personal knowledge or observation, and not from the student’s education records. For example, if a teacher overhears a student making threatening remarks to other students, FERPA does not protect that information, and the teacher may disclose what he or she overheard to appropriate authorities” (source FERPA site).

This appears to have been the course of action taken by Pima Community College. They intervened based on direct eyewitness accounts and calls made to campus police officials; not through academic records.

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About the Author


With more than 30 years experience, David is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) currently administering the emergency management program at Santa Clara University in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area's Silicon Valley. David managed the UCLA Office of Emergency Management for seven years and pioneered the development of the campus' award-winning "BruinAlert" system. David championed development of emergency plans, policies and procedures in the aftermath of Virginia Tech in 2007 and consults higher education institutions on emergency management issues. David is a subject matter expert in mass casualty incident management, emergency notification systems, comprehensive plan development, emergency organization, EOC design and operations, crisis communications, threat and vulnerability assessment, disaster recovery, grant administration and auditing. In 2009, David and other campus emergency managers provided consult in the development of the first incident management course developed by FEMA/EMI specifically for higher education (IS-100HE, Introduction to the Incident Command System (ICS) for Higher Education). Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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