Predicting and Preventing Campus Violence

Experts in the field gather at Columbia University to discuss school shooters, student suicides and the law, among other topics.
April 7, 2008

Harvard University’s first president was an English cleric who reportedly attacked his assistant with a stick “big enough to kill a horse,” Ann Franke, the founder of Wise Results and a consultant on campus risk management issues nationally, related Friday during a conference on “Violence on Campus: Prediction, Prevention and Response.”

“There,” Franke said, “we have a foundation for campus violence.”

Experts on the prediction of violence, threat assessment, school shooters, suicides, mental health, and the legal landscape that serves as the backdrop (if not the foreground) for all this gathered at Columbia University Friday for the packed one-day event. With a focus on those issues and more, what follows are a few of the themes of the day.

There are significant problems inherent in predicting violence, both to the institution and its students. “Rare events, by their nature, are not going to be very predictable,” said Edward Mulvey, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Mulvey summarized both the actuarial (data- and formula-driven) and clinical (individualized) approaches to assessing threats, stressing his preference for a combination of the two. But, of concern, any actuarial formula used to identify students at higher risk of violence (to themselves or others) will yield false positives, or students who raise red flags but aren’t actual threats. “It’s a considerable problem,” Mulvey said, both in terms of wasted institutional resources spent on targeted interventions and stigmatization of, or other negative impacts on, those students targeted. And then of course there are also false negatives -- students who are threats but aren’t tagged as such.

Actuarial tools, however, have the benefit of narrowing the target population for any intervention to students who statistically are at higher risk. And the popularity of such tools will probably rise in the coming years, Mulvey said -- adding that administrators should examine them critically.

“There are a lot of actuarial risk assessment tools out there,” he said. “As people become more concerned with violence, a lot more actuarial instruments may come out and I don’t want to say marketed to you, but presented to you….”

To complicate matters, “There is no useful profile” for a school shooter. “One of the things that people want from us is … ‘Just give me a profile,’ ” said William Modzeleski, U.S. associate assistant deputy secretary of education for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. “Should it be somebody who has a tattoo? Should it be somebody who wears a trench coat?”

In the federal government’s Safe Schools Initiative study, which examined 37 incidents from 1974-2000 at the K-12 level, the shooters’ only common trait, Modzeleski said, “was that they were boys.” (Though there’s a caveat even there, as Modzeleski said incidents involving girls occurred after they completed their research).

Among the general behavioral commonalities, shooters tended to have difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures (mostly perceived failures), most had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack, and more than three-quarters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts.

And across the 37 events, “None of them were impulsive,” Modzeleski said. “There was thinking done,” with planning time ranging from a few hours to over a year (as in the case of Columbine).

Modzeleski described the findings as likely having “some relevance” to colleges and universities, although it is unclear to what extent.

Contrary to prevailing wisdom at many colleges, privacy and disability laws are not barriers to action or intervention. (And, in fact, an independent report on the Virginia Tech massacre found that misinterpretations of privacy laws contributed to broad failures to share critical information about the eventual shooter in advance of the April 16 incident.)

“The law stands as no obstacle for doing what we know is right and for doing what is right for your student,” said Ann Hubbard, a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati.

Forty years ago, college administrators largely responded to concerns about students according to their own professional and moral standards -- with the legal landscape not even a blip on their radar screen, ventured Richard J. Bonnie, a professor and director of the University of Virginia Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.

Whereas today? “It’s just easier to say, ‘Our hands are tied. It’s in the privacy laws.’ ”

Added Nancy Tribbensee, general counsel for the Arizona University System: “We worship FERPA like a religion. I can’t explain it.”

But several experts Friday emphasized there’s no reason to. Existing exemptions under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) grant college officials latitude in emergency situations. Although there are limitations to that latitude: Several speakers pointed, for example, to broad policies mandating automatic, immediate suspension or expulsion for suicidal students as potential violations of the ADA.

Still, speakers weren’t fans anyway of such automatic policies, which, without consideration of individual circumstances, remove students from their support systems and send the wrong message -- discouraging students from seeking help from authority figures or, even, their friends, said Paul Appelbaum, a professor and director of the Division of Psychiatry, Law and Ethics at Columbia.

Citing lawsuits that colleges have settled with students who were forced out of college or from their dormitories (at George Washington University and Hunter College), “One would hope that other schools would get the message without being defendants themselves,” Appelbaum said.

“The safest approach to these issues is also the fairest approach” -- individualized assessments of students, individualized evaluations of risk, and a respect for due process rights, he said.

Amid presentations on preventing high-profile shooting sprees on campus, speakers didn’t forget that suicide is far more prevalent, in fact the second-leading cause of death among college students. And that the majority (about 80 percent) of students who die by suicide have never gone to the counseling center.

Morton M. Silverman, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago and editor of the journal, Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, summarized the challenges in acting to reducing on-campus suicides in his (fairly long) “short list.” It included stigma, a lack of awareness and support among senior administrators, and a lack of urgency.

But when intervention programs are put in place, “Sustainability is always a problem,” Silverman said. “If you start a program, that’s great. You’ve got to keep it going.”

Also during the course of the day, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism offered his thoughts to an audience decidedly unimpressed with the media’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings -- particularly its general failure to follow up on complex and nuanced issues after an intense blitz of Blacksburg.

“There is the phenomenon of the press descending at various times and places,” Nicholas Lemann said. “It’s one of the things we’re just not good at, is sustained attention to things.”

Point taken.


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