BY NOLAN PETERSON
APRIL 11, 2012
Threat assessment teams, a concept developed by the FBI and Secret Service in the wake of the Columbine massacre, have proved successful in identifying and preventing mass-shootings in schools and workplaces. In reaction to a deadly 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University, a law passed later that year requires all colleges and universities in the state to implement this protective measure.
Experts say that a lack of funding and law enforcement assistance has kept this valuable tool in preventing mass murder out of reach for many area colleges.
April 20 will mark the 13th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. In the wake of Columbine, the U.S. secretary of education asked the Secret Service for help in preventing another attack.
The result, published in 1999 by the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, came up with a proactive approach to preventing school and workplace shootings: threat assessment teams.
“Many people have different pieces of the puzzle,” said David Swink, chief creative officer at Creative Interactions Inc. Swink has partnered with the FBI and Secret Service to establish threat assessment teams in schools and workplaces around the country.
“The challenge is putting the pieces together to predict a threat,” Swink said. “No one person has the ability to assess a threat; you just don’t have the full picture.”
Dr. Nancy Zarse, associate professor of forensic psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, said: “There is no easy profile to identify a potential mass murderer. But there are risk factors to look for, and we need threat assessment teams to bring multiple opinions together to determine the threshold of when making a threat turns into posing a threat.”
After the Northern Illinois shootings, colleges and universities were required to develop and implement campus violence prevention committees and campus threat assessment teams. Schools were required to file threat assessment team plans with the Illinois Board of Higher Education by January 2009.
According to a Chicago Tribune article last month, records indicate that only 66 of the state’s 185 higher education institutions have developed threat assessment teams.
“Unfortunately there’s no funding,” said state Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Sycamore), who co-sponsored the act. “Most universities consider the likelihood of something like this happening to be pretty small, so they allocate funding elsewhere.”
Swink said that universities not in compliance with the 2008 law are missing an opportunity to secure student safety.
“Many schools across the country have used threat assessment teams to identify, intervene and manage threats incredibly well,” Swink said. “I am very confident that without threat assessment teams we would have seen many more acts of violence.”
One school’s campus safety expert said the team at his school intervened 60 times since 2010, but often for less-extreme cases.
Despite the statewide mandate, Illinois higher education institutions have received no funding and no law enforcement oversight.
“Threat assessment teams need the participation of law enforcement and a licensed psychologist,” Zarse said. “The path to violence is different for every individual. There is no one definable threshold; you need experts to analyze the buffers against violence that exist in each person’s life.”
Swink reiterated the highly subjective work of threat assessment teams. “You have to consider the context of a threat to determine whether or not to intervene,” Swink said. “If you get it wrong you can move someone further down the path to violence.”
In compliance with the mandate, the John Marshall Law School, in Chicago’s Loop, implemented a threat assessment team in 2010. No funding and a lack of law enforcement assistance left Dave Martino, the director of campus security and safety, with one educational resource for identifying and managing potential mass-murderers:
He went out and bought a book.
“We had the FBI come in for three hours to talk about the history of school shootings, but nothing to do with how to build or operate a threat assessment team,” Martino said. “So I went out and bought a book on school shootings.”
Martino said that state funding allocated by the 2008 law has never materialized. “I always heard there was some state or grant money available, but I haven’t seen any of it,” he said. “They left us out there without any support.”
“There is no provision to enforce this mandate,” Pritchard said. “The state just doesn’t have the money to get behind this right now.”
The April 4 shooting in Oakland, Calif., claimed the lives of seven students and garnered national headlines.
What has received little attention, however, is the effectiveness of the assessment teams that resulted from the Illinois law.
“In a free society I don’t know if you can prevent such incidents from occuring,” Pritchard said. “But we are able to be vigilant and minimalize the threat.”
The upcoming anniversary of the Columbine massacre is not only a reminder of the potentially tragic consequences of overlooked threats, but also a moment of concern for public safety.
“Because it’s April I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw another attack,” Swink said. “Part of it is that April is a stressful month for students [because of exams], but mostly because of the potential for copycats of Columbine.”