Responding to Intimate Partner Violence and Stalking

Jeffrey J. Nolan and Marisa Randazzo describe how colleges and universities can use threat assessment teams to promote safety in such cases.

February 4, 2019
 
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A recent article in Inside Higher Ed summarized the results of an independent report commissioned by the University of Utah and a state of Utah report regarding the tragic murder in October of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey by a man she had dated briefly. The university’s response to the independent report and an associated media announcement emphasized that the institution agreed with the independent report’s assessment and accepted all of its recommendations.

The article and reports summarize well the events surrounding the murder of McCluskey and how the university responded to those events, and we don’t seek to further analyze those events and the response. Rather, we’d like to highlight several specific challenges the independent report referenced that commonly arise in campus intimate partner violence (IPV) and stalking cases, and to emphasize opportunities that colleges and universities have to address those challenges. In particular, we want to encourage the use of threat assessment and management teams in helping deal more effectively with such situations on campuses.

In 2014, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, was amended to require covered colleges and universities to address reports of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking through disciplinary procedures that are generally the same as those used to respond to reports of sexual assault. Given our extensive backgrounds in Title IX, Clery Act and campus threat assessment issues, we recognized that when a college receives a report of intimate partner violence or stalking, the institution may have two simultaneous objectives: 1) to promote safety by addressing, to the extent it reasonably can, any current or future threat posed by the alleged perpetrator and 2) addressing past misconduct through disciplinary procedures, as required by the Clery Act.

This two-tiered “safety first/discipline second” approach is based on the following premises. Many reported campus sexual assault cases have involved parties who have not had, and do not plan to have, any ongoing personal relationship. Thus, as difficult as those cases are for the parties involved, they often do not raise concerns for the risk of further violence in the future, because the people involved respect no-contact orders and have no further interest in interacting with each other. But IPV and stalking cases may be different. By definition, the reported behavior indicates that the person accused may have committed violence (in addition to or including sexual assault) in the context of the parties’ relationship in the past. Beyond that, they also may have engaged in conduct directed at a specific individual that would cause a reasonable person to experience fear for the safety of themselves or others in the future.

One of us wrote a book chapter on this topic, and we have created and presented many educational programs on it with the support of United Educators and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. Our experience with specific cases and our interactions with hundreds of program participants have supported the premise that a two-tiered threat assessment/discipline approach may be best in some IPV and stalking cases. That’s because a disciplinary process alone may not effectively address the risk of continuing violence.

The independent report referenced some challenges that not only the University of Utah but also other colleges and universities have confronted. We’d like to cite three of them and make the following suggestions as to how institutions can best address them. The report found:

No. 1. The campus had a threat assessment team that would reportedly have been a “useful resource to handle threats,” but it was “not used in this case.” In its response to the report’s findings, the university emphasized that it is taking steps to ensure that, going forward, all campus community members know about the team and the expectation to report threats or possible threats to the team and campus police.

In fact, following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, many colleges and universities created threat assessment and management, or TAM, teams to assess and manage situations involving individuals who may pose a threat to others. Threat assessment and management is a methodology refined initially by United States governmental entities such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Secret Service.

Effective TAM teams educate their communities regarding the existence and purpose of the team; encourage reporting of and receive information regarding behavior and statements of concern; efficiently investigate surrounding circumstances to determine, among other things, the person of concern’s motivations, capacity to do harm and status on a potential pathway to violence; and develop strategies to manage the threats that are posed. The need for and functions of TAM teams are summarized in a Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Institutions of Higher Education and “Campus Threat Assessment and Management Teams: What Risk Managers Need to Know Now.”

Yet despite the widespread recognition that threat assessment management is a time-tested and effective process for dealing with various forms of potential interpersonal violence on campuses and in other settings, higher education institutions often use their threat assessment capacity only in cases that involve potential mass violence scenarios. And administrators, faculty and staff often do not involve the institution’s threat assessment team when concerns are reported. It is worth noting that one of reasons a California court ruled in December to advance a student-on-student violence case toward a jury trial was that there was at least an issue of fact as to whether the university should have referred a student assailant’s case to its violence prevention team. According to the court, that team “could have then conducted a formal threat assessment and recommended interventions that would have mitigated the threat [the alleged perpetrator] posed to students.”

Colleges have the opportunity to encourage widespread knowledge of and reporting to their threat assessment and management teams. And in addition to focusing on potential mass violence scenarios, they can deploy them in cases involving threats posed in IPV, stalking and other situations.

No. 2. No one reported information about the McCluskey matter to the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, which handles sexual assault, IPV and stalking cases. This is a common challenge for colleges and universities that can result, again, from the assumption that TAM methodologies are only useful in potential mass violence scenarios. The siloing of information is a chronic problem in higher education, but it can be particularly concerning in situations that pose a potential threat of violence.

Some institutions we work with have, however, adopted innovative approaches designed to break down those silos. One promising practice we have seen involves the use of a Title IX/Clery case management team, which meets weekly (or more often as needed) and includes representatives from the university’s Title IX/EEO office, campus police, human resources, housing, student conduct, counseling and other relevant departments. Many of those representatives are also members of the university’s TAM team. So if it appears -- based on an initial or updated report regarding a sexual assault, dating violence or stalking case -- that a risk of harm might be posed to anyone, a threat assessment process can be initiated seamlessly and immediately.

This practice effectuates the two-tiered threat assessment/disciplinary concept outlined above, and recognizes that promoting safety is the institution’s highest priority. Further, using a TAM team in such a way can be of enormous benefit to Title IX coordinators and their staffs. They have to weigh risk factors in deciding whether to go forward with disciplinary proceedings in cases where the complainant is hesitant to do so, and whether it is safe to allow the person accused to remain on the campus while an investigation is pending.

The bottom line: Title IX coordinators are not equipped to do threat assessment and management on their own. The good news is, they don’t have to go it alone. They can work with their institution’s TAM team to promote safety in sensitive cases involving intimate partner violence and stalking.

No. 3. The scope of the University of Utah’s independent review should be, and was, broadened beyond the actions of the institution’s public safety department to those of other departments. Threat assessment and management is a multidisciplinary process. It is crucial to contact university police (if the university has sworn law enforcement) or external law enforcement in all situations that appear to involve an imminent risk of harm. But we in higher education should also recognize that many more situations can raise concerns about potential, if not imminent, risk. Vital information about troubling but noncriminal activity will most likely be scattered among various institutional departments and individuals. Threat assessment and management teams can play an especially important role in gathering and bringing together that information.

As one of our colleagues often says, “We need to collect the dots before we can connect the dots.” It takes representatives from all relevant corners of the campus community to do that well. Colleges and universities can promote safety in intimate partner violence and stalking cases if we recognize that it is a shared responsibility and develop community awareness campaigns, training, reporting structures and threat assessment protocols that prioritize early notification and action.

We hope this discussion of common challenges and opportunities will help colleges and universities to adopt practices to deal most effectively with cases of intimate partner violence and stalking -- starting with the creation of threat assessment and management teams.

Bio

Jeffrey J. Nolan is the chair of the education practice group at Dinse, PC, and a senior consultant with Sigma Threat Management Associates. He consults with, represents and does training and investigations for colleges and universities throughout the United States on issues including Title IX/Clery Act compliance and threat assessment. Marisa Randazzo is CEO of Sigma Threat Management Associates. She also serves as director of threat assessment for Georgetown University and previously was chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service.

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