Threat Assessment Team works to prevent campus violence

By Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | Sept. 22, 2014

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Emory Police Chief Craig Watson and Amy Adelman, a senior managing attorney in the Office of the General Counsel, lead Emory's Threat Assessment Team. Emory Photo/Video.

A student becomes increasingly withdrawn, refusing to attend class or hang out with friends. An employee appears agitated and angry most of the time, frightening co-workers. A faculty member receives stalking emails from an ex-spouse, hinting at retribution.

Any of these situations could lead to violence on the Emory campus — or none of them could. It's the job of the Threat Assessment Team, working with the Emory community, to identify and manage behaviors that raise concerns.

"We have to pay attention to red flags," says Emory Police Chief Craig Watson. "It's all about managing and taking care of people.

Watson co-chairs Emory's Threat Assessment Team (TAT) with Amy Adelman, a senior managing attorney in the Office of the General Counsel. The team also includes members from the Division of Campus Life, the Faculty Staff Assistance Program, Human Resources for both the university and Emory Healthcare, Student Counseling & Psychological Services, and the Office of Communications & Marketing.

"The TAT benefits from having a variety of viewpoints and areas of expertise, and each member is committed to ensuring that a threat isn't actually realized," Adelman says.

Like similar teams at many other universities, Emory's TAT was formed in the wake of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, the deadliest attack by a single gunman in U.S. history. Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at the university, killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide.

The attack prompted Watson to seek an official team to bring a structured process to the collaboration already taking place between Emory police and other campus divisions.

"A lot of the issues were already being addressed, but in a more ad hoc fashion and not a formalized fashion," he recalls. "But we were not all necessarily looking at everything at the same time."

The TAT meets twice monthly and also schedules conference calls as necessary to address incidents reported in between meetings. Since Emory's TAT formed in 2008, it has handled about 275 matters, Adelman reports.

She lists a few of the types of situations the team has encountered: a student behaving strangely in a residence hall, a troubled student posting on Facebook about weapons, a former employee who remained fixated on the university, an unsuccessful job applicant who continued very persistent and disturbing communications.

"One thing we have learned is that the key is not simply whether someone has made a threat, but whether various factors point to someone posing a threat," Adelman says. "The people who are most concerning are those who have reached a point at which they feel that they have nothing to lose by engaging in an act of violence. We do as much research as we can to determine what is going on in the life of the student or employee involved, and we discuss and recommend appropriate steps that can be taken to intervene and deter violence." 

Help for those posing threats and those who feel threatened

The Threat Assessment Team exists to make recommendations: It can't terminate an employee or force a student to leave campus, but it can offer advice and help the appropriate divisions plan how to accomplish their goals in the safest manner.

The team can also help troubled members of the Emory community through actions like contacting family members or connecting the person with mental health services.

If the person is already receiving counseling through campus providers, the representative on the Threat Assessment Team can't disclose those conversations, or even the existence of a provider-patient relationship, because of privacy obligations. However, counselors can use information learned from the TAT in their conversations with the client. They can also reach out to those whose behavior indicates they made need mental health services to encourage them to seek help.

The team exists to serve those who feel threatened, too, Watson says. The TAT can provide tools, strategies and responses to reduce vulnerability, even if there is not a significant threat.

"Half of it is assessing whether there is or isn't a threat and what is the likelihood it could be carried out," he says. "The other half is managing the situation to provide a sense of safety in the community."

Community input needed

Adelman and Watson praise the dedication of members of the threat assessment team, who participate in in-depth training and make a significant time commitment, but also stress that the team needs input from across the university to be successful.

"The worst thing is for someone not to share a concern," Watson says.

Faculty can play a particularly important role, Adelman says. Their daily involvement with students means they may be the first to notice a student who has stopped attending class, whose grades have suddenly dropped, or who is becoming withdrawn, behaving oddly or expressing disturbing thoughts in office visits or coursework.

Some faculty members mistakenly think the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents them from reporting such signs, or prevents the university from reaching out to students' families, who may be able to help intervene or provide information. But Adelman stresses that reaching out with these kinds of concerns is not only legal — it's crucial.

"FERPA only protects the privacy of student educational records," she says. "A student's behavior is not an educational record, so faculty should not hesitate to come forward about students of concern.  Even if FERPA may be implicated, there are exceptions for emergency situations."

When in doubt, Adelman urges faculty to contact the appropriate dean or the Office of General Counsel, who can assist in determining whether FERPA applies and whether an exception should be made in order to address a safety concern. 

The TAT encourages anyone in the university community to reach out about potential threats, but it doesn't offer a centralized phone number — a deliberate decision, according to Watson and Adelman.

"Our concern is that someone could have an ongoing emergency and call the number like it is 911, and no one is going to answer it," Watson says.

Instead, anyone with a concern that is not an immediate crisis is encouraged to call EPD, Campus Life or Human Resources. Steps will be taken to maintain the confidentiality of the caller, although Adelman cautions that complete anonymity cannot be guaranteed.

All cases reported to Campus Life or Human Resources may not need attention from the Threat Assessment Team — "It might be something that is not a threat, but is a personal issue that they can help address," Watson notes.

"But if it doesn't get addressed, it can fester and become a threat team issue down the road."

Help keep Emory safe

Warning signs to watch for:

  • Explicit statements about harming someone
  • Attempts to harm or kill self
  • Expressing suicidal thoughts
  • Social isolation
  • Changes in behavior
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Unexplained absenteeism
  • Increase in alcohol or drug use
  • Anxiety or uncertainty about family/relationships/situations
  • Lack of energy or chronic fatigue
  • Change in appearance/decline hygiene
  • Sending disturbing messages (such as texts, emails or letters) to students/staff/faculty
  • Paranoia
  • Loss of job/income/relationships
  • Disruptive behavior/irritability/abrasive towards others
  • Coursework content that is alarming
  • Depression or nervousness
  • Identifying with other persons who engaged in past violence toward others
  • Making statements that support the use of violence to resolve issues

Where to report concerns:

  • Emergencies: Call 911 immediately
  • Concerns about students: Campus Life, 404-727-4364
  • Concerns about faculty or staff members: Human Resources, 404-727-7611

Safety resources:

  • Emory Police Department: 404-727-6111
  • Counseling and Psychological Services: 404-727-7450
  • Faculty Staff Assistance Program: 404-727-4328
  • Human Resources, Emory University: 404-727-7611
  • Human Resources, Emory Healthcare: 404-712-4938
  • Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response: 404-712-1300
  • Student Sexual Assault Support Services: 404-727-1514