You’ve Suspended a Potential Aggressor. Now What?

Threat assessment teams, information sharing, community partnerships and automated tools help colleges manage at-risk individuals both on- and off-campus.

Editor’s Note, Feb. 16, 2018: With more details about the Parkland, Fla. high school shooting suspect coming to light, this article, which originally ran in 2014,  is particularly appropriate in that it covers in depth how to manage a person who has already been deemed a threat and has been disciplined by the campus.

Jared Loughner had five run-ins with Pima Community College (PCC) campus police and was placed on suspension for violating the student code of conduct, which later led to his withdrawal from the school. During his time at Pima, a teacher and a classmate both said they thought he might commit a school shooting. The last contact PCC had with Loughner was a letter sent telling him that if he intended to return to school, he would have to provide a letter from a mental health official indicating “his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others.”

Three months after his suspension from PCC, Loughner went on a shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., killing six people and injuring 14 others.

The active shooter at a University of Pittsburgh clinic in February 2012 had been a graduate student in biology at Duquesne University until he was barred from its campus for sending harassing text and E-mail messages to female students. Was the University of Pittsburgh made aware of these incidents and the reason for the student’s departure from Duquesne? Did the application process identify this information?

Once a student (or staff member) is identified as a threat to your campus, there are many important questions that need to be addressed. What steps should be taken? Should the student be suspended? If the student is asked to leave campus temporarily or indefinitely, what are your responsibilities for continuing to monitor that individual? Should institutions partner with mental health resources to monitor the behaviors of the former student? Can institutions partner with local police to identify related police reports and track activities? Should campus officials keep in contact with the individual’s family? Should student records be shared with local law enforcement or neighboring campuses? Can student records be legally shared according to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations?

These questions can be difficult to answer, but it is clear from the lessons learned above and other tragic incidents that the risks do not go away when individuals are suspended, expelled or pushed away and then allowed to fall through the cracks.

What can mental health professionals or student services personnel do to ensure all the right dots are connected, both within their organization and across local and regional campuses and communities?

Campuses Must ID, Assess At-Risk Individuals

Let’s start at the beginning. All college campuses should verify that their policies for addressing unacceptable student behavior are clear, objective and unambiguous. The entire campus community should be made aware of both these policies and the procedures for reporting incidents, suspicious actions and concerning behaviors. If students or staff/faculty believe a person may be a risk to themselves or to others, this information must be reported immediately.

All incident reports should then be investigated thoroughly by the campus threat assessment team (TAT/BIT) to determine the overall level of risk and the appropriate course of action.

It is important for staff and faculty to understand that students cannot be removed from class or barred from campus just because their behavior is “weird,” “concerning” or “alarming.” However, if the student poses a direct threat to others, the college should and can take immediate action.

Sidebar: 7 Questions Threat Assessment Teams Should Ask When Considering Student Suspension

Always Follow Due Process Procedures

Many colleges have some form of interim suspension policy in place that enables them to review the situation and behavior of the student in question before making a final decision. The policy should designate under what circumstances the institution can impose an interim suspension, who has the authority to impose suspensions, and how/when a suspension may be lifted or modified.

If a student is deemed a potential threat, he or she may be suspended while the best course of action is determined, but due process must be in place and followed – both immediately (notifying the student and providing an initial opportunity to respond) and as additional steps are taken, such as providing an opportunity for a hearing and appeal, plus steps for monitoring behaviors, threats and escalations.

If a student will not agree to a voluntary leave of absence, many colleges have developed involuntary withdrawal procedures that may be used to remove the student from campus. Prior to imposing an involuntary withdrawal, institutions should secure a professional opinion from a mental health provider stating the student poses an imminent risk of serious harm to self or others. New laws prohibit a university from withdrawing a student if he is a danger to himself, as that is seen as a mental illness under ADA. If the student is a danger to others, the campus may proceed with involuntary withdrawal. Protocols spelling out the specific procedures and conditions for voluntary and involuntary leaves of absence (as well as conditions for re-entry) should be clearly outlined, acknowledged, followed and documented by all parties involved.

It is important to consider that suspension and termination from campus may discourage not only the at-risk student involved, but all students, from seeking help in the future. Because of this concern, it is generally preferable to utilize interim suspension or other internal intervention and disciplinary procedures if possible. However, a college can remove a student from all classes/activities and cease enrollment if it finds that the student constitutes a direct threat to the safety of others.

If the threat assessment team determines the at-risk student can no longer function safely on campus, the student may be suspended for a period of up to two years. If the student wishes to re-enroll after the suspension, they must provide documentation stating they are physically and/or psychologically stable and not a threat to themselves or others before they are allowed to return. Campuses should play a supportive role in this process to ensure safety for everyone.

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