How Threat Assessment Teams Can Help Prevent Violence on Campuses
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By Dr. Nicole Drumhiller, Associate Dean, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
In 2018, eleven years after the Virginia Tech shooting, gun violence on college campuses claimed 320 people. As more students continue to fall victim to gun violence this year, educators and professional organizations have come to lobby for the presence of threat assessment teams on school campuses. These teams increase communication across different university and law enforcement units to mitigate and respond to incidents of violence. Could a threat assessment team have prevented the killing of Lauren McCluskey, a student at the University of Utah, in October 2018?
In discussions of the Lauren McCluskey murder, one controversial issue is the alleged failure of the University of Utah to manage the threat of violence effectively. While many universities have focused on preventing mass shootings by incorporating emergency notification systems on campus and conducting first-person shooter drills, there needs to be more awareness that violence on campus takes multiple forms. More attention and education needs to focus on preventing targeted violence like stalking, aggravated assault, intimate partner violence, and murder.
Events Leading to Lauren McCluskey’s Death
Lauren was a bright student-athlete who was killed by a man she had a brief four-week relationship with. She ended the relationship after discovering Melvin Shawn Roland’s criminal past, but he continued to harass her. Between September 30, 2018 and her death on October 22, Lauren and those close to her had over 20 interactions with campus staff, safety officials, and Salt Lake City law enforcement. These include reports of Rowland’s controlling behavior, stalking of Lauren on campus, and talk of bringing a gun to campus.
University police never carried out an “offender status” check on Rowland, and thus never discovered he was a convicted sex offender on parole. When Lauren’s mother, Jill, contacted campus police to request a security escort to help her daughter retrieve her car from Rowland, the incident was never entered into the case management system. In the weeks that followed, Lauren became increasingly concerned by the university’s lack of action. After notifying campus police of Rowland’s harassment on October 12 and sexual extortion on October 13, she attempted to engage Salt Lake City police on October 19 for fear of campus police not taking her seriously.
Despite all these interactions, no campus or law enforcement unit created a comprehensive case file, and Lauren received scant guidance from campus safety officials on what she could do to protect herself.
Could Lauren’s Death Have Been Prevented?
The University of Utah argues that they did everything in their power to mitigate the threat of violence in Lauren’s killing. However, reports from Lauren’s family, the timeline of events, and an independent study of the situation demonstrate areas where the university mishandled the case. Others maintain that the parole board and Salt Lake City police are at fault for Lauren’s death.
After the incident, no reprimands were issued to campus safety officials who mishandled the case. Instead, the University of Utah police department issued awards, including awards to those who handled Lauren’s case. Only after another recent domestic violence case was mishandled was a university officer disciplined for mistakes made. Despite the independent report’s notation of the university’s failings and 30 recommended fixes, the university President Ruth Watkins maintains there is no reason to believe that Lauren’s death could have been prevented. However, the University of Utah has worked to integrate some of the changes recommended by the report.
The Need for a Team-Based Approach
The lack of communication in the handling of Lauren’s case demonstrates the need for a campus threat assessment team, something the University of Utah has worked to develop since Lauren’s murder. However, that team will not be successful unless there is a significant shift in mindset on the university’s campus and those in leadership positions are willing to recognize and fix past failings.
A threat assessment team on a college campus should be multidisciplinary and comprised of representatives from campus safety, human resources, counseling and legal services, as well as officials from student affairs. In some cases, universities might also include a liaison from local law enforcement. By meeting regularly to discuss cases, a team-based approached is utilized to mitigate and respond to incidents of violence.
On campus, these teams need to conduct regular outreach efforts to ensure students, faculty, and staff understand their role in enhancing campus safety and the safety resources that are available to them. Faculty and students need to be empowered to reach out to threat assessment teams, or the representative offices that comprise them, about concerning issues and behavior that arise on campus. Since this can be construed as a delicate matter, both faculty and students would benefit from training that helps them to better understand how they can identify such situations and help make a difference in keeping their communities safe.
Threat assessment teams are only as good as the people serving on them. To that end, team members must be free of gender bias, exercise good emotional intelligence when working with the community, and invest in protecting all individuals in need of assistance. It’s essential that teams build strong and trusting relationships with the constituents they serve. Threat assessment and management units on campuses need to be trusted by the communities they serve in order to be effective.
Making Legislative and Proactive Changes
After Lauren McCluskey’s death, Utah legislation passed S.B 134, a statewide campus safety bill that will help other institutions better protect its campus community.
The Threat Assessment Prevention and Safety (TAPS) Act of 2019 introduced by Marco Rubio, Kyrsten Sinema, and Thom Tillis is another way to enhance how threat assessment and management is carried out across the United States. However, even without such legislation, resources like those developed, curated, promoted by the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals are already in existence and can help universities across the country take proactive steps to protect their campus communities.
If you work on a college campus, see what resources your institution has in place to collaborate effectively across units. Helping to mitigate threats that claim lives like Lauren’s is everyone’s responsibility. Students, faculty, and staff must not only be informed of, but feel confident in communicating with threat assessment teams to report incidents and help victims respond to threats of violence.
About the Author: Dr. Nicole Drumhiller, PhD, CTM is a certified Threat Manager, and is the Associate Dean of the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. Nicole teaches courses in analysis, leadership profiling, deception, and propaganda. Her research interests include threat management, group and leadership psychology, and extremist studies. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.