Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 17
 
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
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Lessons From the Virginia Tech Tragedy; Conference Examines School Shootings

Linda Arntzenius

In spite of the mental health concerns that had been raised about Virginia Tech student Seung Hui Cho in childhood and adolescence, the school was unprepared on April 16, 2007, when Mr. Cho killed himself and 32 others and injured at least 24 more. The incident stands as the deadliest in history for an institution of higher education. Why, given the warning signs, was the tragedy not prevented? And what can be learned from it for the future?

These questions were considered by threat assessment experts, along with campus safety and mental health professionals, at last Friday’s Woodrow Wilson School conference, “Campus Safety in Focus: Advances & Ongoing Challenges One Year Later.” Hosted by the Policy Research Institute for the Region, the Princeton University Department of Public Safety, and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), the conference explored the ongoing progress and continuing questions involved in securing university campuses.

Threat assessment expert Marisa Randazzo, a Princeton graduate and the founder of Threat Assessment International, and Gene Deisinger, who commands the Special Operations Unit of the Police Department at Iowa State University, developed a collaborative, fact-based approach for an audience of campus safety officers and violence experts from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania in their presentation, “Best Practices and Model Policies in Threat Assessment.”

Ms. Randazzo, who spent 10 years as chief research psychologist with the U.S. Secret Service in charge of research on school shootings, suggested that based on facts about campus violence gathered in a federal study the Secret Service conducted jointly with the U.S. Department of Education, perpetrators of campus violence, contrary to the misfit “loner” stereotype portrayed in the media, don’t “just snap.”

“These incidents are not impulsive or random; over 75 percent are well thought out beforehand with clear warning signs presented to others,” she said. And while it’s not possible to tell from a student’s appearance, a lot can be learned from behavior, with those for whom there is cause for concern already appearing on multiple “radar screens.”

“The key is to act quickly upon an initial report of concern, see who else has a piece of the puzzle, then pull all the information together to see what picture emerges,” concluded Ms. Randazzo.

Report Unveiled

At the core of the day-long conference was the release of IACLEA’s Blueprint for Safer Campuses, which determined that the problems included “unmanaged mental health issues; easy access to firearms; a lack of communication among campus direct service providers; and erroneous interpretation of federal law.”

Co-authored by Princeton University Director of Public Safety Steven J. Healy, the report recommends that campus safety officers “should have access to a range of use of force options including lethal (firearms) and less-than-lethal (impact tools, chemical, and electronic control devices). In short, sworn officers should be armed.”

In response to a query from Town Topics about any plans the University might have for arming its officers in view of the report’s recommendations, Director of Media Relations Cass Cliatt said, “For some colleges and universities, the right policy is to arm their public safety officers, but we believe that would not be the right policy for Princeton, at least for now. This is based in part on a long tradition at Princeton of a supportive and respectful relationship between public safety officers and students that we believe could be damaged. The other significant factor is the recognition that our main campus is located in two communities with sizeable police forces that are readily available and accessible if and when we need their assistance. We believe that the right policy for Princeton is to rely on municipal police officials for any police activities that require the use of firearms and not to alter the nature of the relationship between our public safety officers and our students. As with any policy, this is one we will continue to review on a regular basis.”

Misinterpretations of FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) were also cited in contributing to “the perfect storm at Virginia Tech.” Addressing this issue, Dr. Gary J. Margolis said that it was a mistake to believe that communications about a person’s mental health and behaviors such as Mr. Cho’s are prohibited by the federal laws governing the privacy of health and education records. “In reality, federal laws and their state counterparts afford ample leeway to share information in potentially dangerous situations,” he said. Following the failure of adequate communications in the case of Mr. Cho, the Deptartment of Education has issued further guidelines to help campuses understand and interpret HIPAA and FERPA.

Described as a “road map for safety on college campuses,” the blueprint makes 20 recommendations, the most salient of which Mr. Healy identified as the presence of a behavioral threat assessment team and the identifying of the most appropriate level of protection for individual campuses. Had Virginia Tech not had an armed response, more lives would probably have been lost, he said.

The report calls for every institution of higher education to have “a behavioral threat assessment team that includes representatives from law enforcement, human resources, student and academic affairs, legal counsel, and mental health functions. Specifically, campus public safety should be included on the team.”

In addition to Mr. Healy, who is the immediate past president of the IACLEA, public safety professionals from educational institutions in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania contributed regional perspectives at the conference. Attending were Jay Kohl, executive director of the Division of Public Safety at Rutgers University; Thomas Lawrence, vice president for Public Safety at St. John’s University; and Maureen Rush, vice president of Public Safety at the University of Pennsylvania.

A collaborative approach works best in managing potentially violent situations, the report concluded: “Threatening situations are best investigated, managed, and resolved through collaborative efforts between administrators, faculty, staff, law enforcement, Human Resources, EAP, mental health counselors, legal services, etc.”

To view the full report, visit the IACLEA website: www.iaclea.org. For FERPA, visit: www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html. For HIPAA, visit: www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa.

Roots of the Problem

Attempting to get to the root of a problem that she described as being epidemic in the nation’s schools, conference keynote speaker, Sociology Professor Katherine S. Newman, shared her findings after two years of examining shootings at high schools. Ms. Newman is the author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings and Director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. While there were some significant differences between incidents at high schools and those on college campuses, there was much to learn from looking at the cases of younger shooters, she said.

After showing a short animated film created and distributed on the Internet (www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/target.html) by teen Jeffrey Wiese before his shooting rampage at Red Lake School in Minnesota on March 23, 2005, she commented that while the media at the time reported the event as the outburst of a loner to personal tragedy, Mr. Wiese was neither a loner or a “loser,” nor were his actions spontaneous. “They were planned and his intentions were broadcast,” she said. Her research had found that school shooters were not deranged, spontaneous deviants but troubled adolescents either “inappropriately solving a problem” or at the beginning of mental illness when it is not easy to recognize. The problem, she found, was that no one knew how to deal with the warning signs.

Ms. Newman characterized high school shooters as intelligent isolated boys who desperately want to fit in but who are marginalized and constantly rebuffed. Her presentation, “Why Terrible Things Happen in ‘Perfect’ Places,” showed such incidents to be few in number until the 1990s, peaking with Columbine.

The decline after Columbine, she suggested, was a result of students and campus administrators becoming more responsive to the warning signs and thus being better able to prevent an escalation to tragedy.

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A positive outcome of the Virginia Tech incident, according to James Fox of Northeastern University, is that a third of all colleges in the country have increased staffing and services in the area of mental health. “We’ve been motivated to do something that should have been done earlier,” said Mr. Fox. “As a result the well-being of the entire student body is enhanced.”

At Princeton University, there’s been an increase in the services available to students, according to John Kolligan, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services. “Princeton is well staffed with two psychiatrists, three clinical social workers, and 12 psychologists for 6600 students,” he said, adding that the University had upgraded access to care portals, added hours available for urgent care so that students in or on the verge of crisis can be seen by a clinician.

Mr. Kolligan also noted increased outreach activities by his staff so that there is more awareness on campus and in student residences of the services available to them. “We’re seeing an increase of about 15 percent of students using our services each year.”

The petition was crafted by the PCDO’s Local Issues Committee, an ad hoc group, and is expected to be up for discussion at the PCDO general meeting on June 22. The resolution is expected to be forwarded to the Princeton University trustee board, the Princeton Regional Board of Education, the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and both Princeton governing bodies.

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