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How to respond to worrisome behaviour on campus

A student affairs officer shares his advice on how to assess and safely de-escalate a disturbing situation.

By ANDRE COSTOPOULOS | JUL 17 2018

Student affairs officers frequently get reports of worrisome behaviour on campus. These range in severity from actual acts of violence, such as assault or vandalism, to specific threats to persons or buildings, including death threats and bomb threats, to vague feelings of unease generated by interaction with a particular individual. Every report must be taken seriously, evaluated and followed up. In the back of your mind is always the question: “What if this is the one?” Given the number of tragedies in universities and high schools over the past few years, I have asked myself that question on a regular basis and have often been asked it by worried others.

Since I am a student affairs officer, most of the reports that come to me are about students. Since most of the people in a postsecondary institution are students, it makes sense that most of the reports of worrisome behaviour both come from and concern them. Others in the institution handle reports of worrisome behaviour by faculty, support staff and even unaffiliated individuals. We often work together to respond to these reports and we all use the same basic approach.

Gauging the situation

What actually happens in a university or college when a report of worrisome behaviour comes in? The guiding principle for intervention in these situations should be that, within existing rules and policies, reasonable concern justifies reasonable action. This sounds simple, but the difficulty is always in the application of the principle to a particular situation. How do you establish the level of concern? Which measures are appropriate and proportional to the level of concern, are not in conflict with existing policies, and respect the privacy rights and presumption of innocence of all involved?

First, it is important to work with as much information as possible about the individuals involved, the reported incidents and their contexts. It is important to work with the right people who have the right expertise and have access to the right information to make a judgment call and to propose a course of action. It is important to see that the proposed course of action is followed up. These seem like obvious things, but they need to be done purposefully and promptly – purposefully because they must have a clear goal with measurable outcomes, and promptly because the best plan is useless if it remains unimplemented. Delay could also allow a tragedy to take place.

If the course of action does not have the desired effect (reducing the overall level of concern, the worry of those involved, or keeping an individual away from an area or a person), it must be revised quickly. Over-reaction to an innocuous situation, on the other hand, can create risk and conflict where none existed and where none should exist.

Several very different and sometimes independent dimensions of these worrisome situations must be managed together: the safety and well-being of the community, the rights, safety and well-being of the individual or individuals who are the subject of the report, the situation as perceived by those directly involved, the situation as perceived by the rest of the community, and the actual reality of the situation as known by only a few who have access to all the available information and to the advice of relevant specialists.

The vast majority of reports of worrisome behaviour are the result of interactions with individuals in deep crisis, individuals with serious mental health issues, or individuals who are otherwise not an actual threat but whose behaviour may be difficult to deal with. A very small number of reports are the result of actual threatening behaviour by potentially dangerous individuals.

No matter what the nature of the case, it must be looked into and managed for the safety and well-being both of the community and of the individuals concerned. This involves a great deal of work, but as a student affairs officer, I would rather get 10 reports per week that do not turn out to be substantial than miss “the one.” I never discourage people from telling us about their concerns and I always let them know that we take these concerns seriously, even though they may not lead to formal action (and normally, they don’t).

The risk assessment team

Most institutions have some kind of behavioural or risk assessment team and, arguably, all institutions should have one. When a report comes in, share it with the people on that team. These usually include at least a case manager, a mental health professional, someone from protective services (ideally a trained threat assessor), and the senior student affairs officer.

The team will often call on specific resource persons depending on the case, usually including someone from legal services, but often also an instructor, a department chair, a building custodian, or whoever might have relevant information or expertise. All these people bring valuable perspectives, and some of them will bring important relevant information about the particular individuals involved, both those reporting and those who are the subject of the report. In many cases, it is a good idea to involve someone from the university relations office. They can help with social media monitoring, which is often an important source of information about an evolving situation.

The student affairs officer has access to academic and co-curricular records, on which there may be indications of crisis. Security personnel have access to previous incident reports that may concern the individuals involved and may have the expertise to offer opinions on the level of risk the individual may present. Legal personnel may provide useful guidance on possible avenues for resolution of difficult situations and help identify the limits of our freedom of action under existing legislation.

Mental health personnel may know whether and how these individuals are being treated or followed. They may not be able to share their knowledge of the specific case, but it will guide and inform their advice. All these people also bring resources and awareness of the institution’s various constraints in dealing with these cases. This team should meet on a regular basis (weekly at least in a large institution) to follow ongoing cases. It should be brought together punctually whenever necessary and at a moment’s notice. In an average week in the middle of the semester, it is not unusual for our team to meet two or three times. Because of the mental and emotional load involved in dealing with these kinds of cases, it is good to build in some redundancy and have more than one person from each key office involved, perhaps on a rotating basis.

While the team is doing its work, it should ensure that the people who sent in the concern are given some sort of feedback. It is typically not possible to tell them much, but just the knowledge that their concern is being taken seriously and is being followed up usually makes a big difference. Go meet with them. Let them tell you their story. You will get a better sense of the nature of their concern. You may get important information that was not in the initial report, and you will help calm everyone down, which itself may help keep the situation from escalating. If people know they are supported, they are more likely to keep their responses to difficult situations moderate.

The threat level

The team’s first role is to determine whether the individual is an immediate threat. This will be primarily determined on the advice of mental health professionals and protective services on the basis of available information, including reports received, information available to various university offices, and searches for online material such as social media profiles and publically available court and criminal records.

If there is an immediate threat, the team needs to take immediate action to protect the community and/or the individual. The student affairs officer and legal personnel need to assess the administrative tools available to them, and security personnel need to coordinate with external authorities to address the threat. Other considerations can wait a bit but can’t be entirely ignored. The individual still has rights, and while they may be at least perceived as a threat, they are still a fellow human being and a student of the institution. We must be concerned with their well-being and extend them what support we can. I have seen students who were excluded from campus for extended periods go on to graduate because we worked to find ways of accommodating them academically.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the assessment team will determine that there is no immediate threat, but that there is a certain level of concern. Here I must note that while the concern is usually with the person who is the subject of the report, this isn’t always the case. The team must ask not only whether it is reasonable for that person to not have known that their words and actions were worrisome to the people around them, it must also ask whether it is reasonable that the person making the report felt threatened by or concerned about those words and actions.

In rare cases where the latter is true, concern must be for the well-being of the person making the report. It is often possible to help them acknowledge that they have had a traumatic experience and that support is available from the institution. It is also important to reassure them that their concerns are taken seriously and that appropriate action is being taken. In most cases, however, the concern will be with the person who is the subject of the report.

Given a high level of concern, immediate outreach may be important. A student affairs officer can meet with the student who is the subject of the report to evaluate the situation, hear their side of the story, listen to any concerns they may have, and make sure that they are aware of support available to them. This initial outreach will likely provide important information that will feed into continued threat assessment over time. It can also serve to let the student know that there is a place for them to bring their grievances and concerns that will limit potential friction with students and/or front-line staff (including faculty) who may not have the training, time or disposition to deal with difficult individuals. It may reassure them that they don’t need to escalate their behaviour in order to be heard and to have their concerns addressed.

Active and passive measures

A high level of concern may call for certain active measures. These should be in the form of voluntary conditions whenever possible. It is a good sign when a person whose behaviour is reportedly worrisome readily agrees to voluntarily respect certain rules or guidelines. It can also give an administrator more leverage and more options if the individual then doesn’t abide by the documented agreement.

It may be helpful, for example, for an individual not to be on campus after a certain hour, or to stay away from a certain building, or not to contact certain individuals or groups in order to minimize risk or keep a situation from escalating. If an individual doesn’t voluntary comply to these conditions, then they must be imposed, and appropriate measures must be taken by academic officers, security and legal services, using the legal and policy tools at their disposal. The fact that voluntary conditions are not followed is itself a warning sign that should not be ignored and may cause the level of concern to increase.

A lower level of concern calls for more passive and indirect measures. These can range from continued monitoring of a situation by just staying in regular touch with an individual to having regular meetings with those who see the situation evolve first-hand. Perhaps the most difficult part of these low-concern situations is to avoid escalating them by monitoring too closely and fuelling worry on the part of the people who sent in the report, or the individual who is the subject of that report. The best way I have found for maintaining that balance is to be available to those who need you, but not to intervene unless necessary. I have seen low-concern situations remain stable for years with just an occasional chat with some of the people involved.

There is no magic formula for addressing worrisome situations on campus, and there is no way to predict which situations will escalate into full-fledged disasters. The best an academic administrator can do is ensure that the right people are involved in the response, including sometimes external law-enforcement and medical authorities, that they have the right information, that the first priority is always safety and de-escalation, and that any necessary course of action is followed up promptly.

Andre Costopoulos is vice-provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta.

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  1. Tanya, psychologist for a BIT team / July 18, 2018 at 14:20

    Thank you for pointing out that the mental health arm of the team may not have licence to share what they know in formulating their input.

  2. Andre Costopoulos / July 18, 2018 at 15:46

    An important qualifier

  3. R. Craigen / July 18, 2018 at 15:57

    This piece being stated almost entirely in bland generalities it’s hard to tell if you’re talking about students having difficulty dealing with material that affects them emotionally in class, or accusations of sexual assault, or someone whom others think might be a latent campus shooter. Or whether you’re trying to capture the whole gamut in one article. Some specific examples would go a long way to illustrating what you’re talking about instead of repeatedly using the phrase “worrisome behaviour”. You do realise how Orwellian that phrase sounds? It doesn’t help your case, when offices with names including phrases like “student affairs” and “diversity” have a growing reputation in our culture for ignoring societal standards of due process and often are perceived of siding with a complainant over an accused in situations before evidence that would rise to any acceptable legal standard for action has been put forward. We hear numerous cases in which students have suffered tangible, irreversible consequences from being accused where it later comes out that there is no substance to the story. And cases in which a student has to face serious charges but is not permitted to face their accuser in an arena specifically qualified to adjudicate legal disputes. And in some cases defendants who are not even informed in any detail about the nature of the charges they face. Your mention of the scrutiny of social media is a red flag. Presumably you’re talking about what anyone can do by simply googling a person and looking through what they’ve posted publicly. But the suggestion that this should be done by professionals whose job is to do this, reeks of the codification of the practices of doxxing and “opposition research” on behalf of a complainant. A court of law must remain neutral and cannot expend resources solely to support one party over another. No less should it be true of campus star chambers with the power to effect real damage to peoples’ careers and reputations.

    How about some discussion of the real issues raised by the issues herein: What measures are in place on Canadian campuses to deal with the campus equivalent of SLAPP action? What are the consequences for people who attempt to use campus proceedings to harm others in frivolous actions? How do you flag the distinction between your office being used as a political cudgel to stifle debate and genuine concern about a person’s likely actions? What safeguards are in place against the heckler’s veto (here I mean the manipulation of such offices on campus as vehicles of the veto)?

    Could you discuss, for example, the Lindsay Shepherd case, and illustrate what you would do differently and (beyond simply claiming you’re got a higher moral ground than WLU in this regard) what changes must take place in campus administrative bodies dealing with complaints that would forestall such instances from occurring repeatedly over time?

  4. Andre Costopoulos / July 18, 2018 at 16:34

    Dear R. Craigen,

    These are important questions. I will draft something and post it here.

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