Behavioral Assessment Takes Center Stage at NJ CUPSA Conference

Published: May 14, 2008

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – The Third Annual New Jersey College and University Public Safety Association (NJ CUPSA) Conference was held at the Atlantic City Hilton April 9-11, and attendees learned about behavioral assessment as it relates to campus life and mass shooters.

Dan Korem, author of Rage of the Random Actor, presented the “Historical Perspective and Assessment of the Random Actor,” while Capt. Gene Deisinger, Ph.D., commander of Special Operations at Iowa State University’s police division, led the “Behavioral Assessment and Team Formation” session.

Ignoring Behavior Patterns Can Cost a Campus

One of the most important things to realize, according to Korem, is that it is more important to look at the person’s behavior patterns as a way of distinguishing how much harm they might cause to the campus community. “If you try to identify people by certain physical traits, it’s going to cause you trouble,” he explained.

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Deisinger, a licensed psychologist, agrees. “[Let’s look at] ‘Johnny,’ one of those unconventional types. He tends to keep to himself. In his English class he writes a paper, and it’s about walking into a classroom and in slow motion whipping out a shotgun and blowing away people.”For those who would normally react in disgust and tell the student to go home and think about what he/she has written, Deisinger said isolating the student might not be a wise approach. “He’s spent way too much time thinking about this kind of [violent behavior]. So we separate him and we alienate him. Then we’re shocked when he comes back and is violent two weeks later.”

Instead, Deisinger recommended campus officials engage the at-risk individual so the person can’t hide his or her escalating threatening behavior. If someone is talking about violence (e.g. bombing the institution, suicide or killing other people), campus officials should ask the individual about it. “They might not tell the truth, but their response will be informative,” says Deisinger.

Additionally, the individual may have a legitimate, unresolved complaint that should be addressed. By resolving the at-risk person’s issue, he or she might feel less justified to act out. Korem also added that making those who appear to have random actor characteristics feel safe, as well as putting them in environments that are less conventional may ease their fears and anger.

Community Involvement Is Key in Preventing Violence

It is also crucial to look outside of your own community when dealing with potential mass shooters or violent individuals. Korem maintains that college students sometimes recruit students from high schools and middle schools to participate in violent acts. “If you take care of your college campus and you think you’re okay, think again,” Korem said. “You have to take care of the circumference around your campus; you have to have folks talking to one another.”

With that being said, there are warning signs the campus community can look out for in those who may cause harm to themselves or to others. “We don’t look for people who will be active shooters,” said Deisinger. “We’re looking for people posing physical harm to others or to themselves. Suicide is a much bigger concern on college campuses than homicide.”

Indeed, the onset age range of most symptoms of psychological illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and major depression, is 17-24 – the ages of most college students.

When dealing with people with such behavior, Deisinger says it’s important to remember that not all suicidal individuals are homicidal. At least 10-20 percent of students have thought about suicide, and 10 percent have made plans for suicide. The random actor is simply a subset of this group.

For campuses to be fully aware of the situations at hand, especially when dealing with threatening, violent behavior, Deisinger recommends the campus community do the following:

  • Create a decision making structure before an incident occurs
  • Have the crisis management team meet monthly to review policies, procedures, etc.
  • Have the threat management team meet daily or weekly, depending on the need
  • Have multiple pathways for reporting violent behavior, including anonymous outlets
  • Remind the community that all reports are wanted and something will be done

These guidelines may help officials to deal with either a threat or potential threat.

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