Unbeknownst to most students, a team of staff members exists that is dedicated to ensuring the safety of the University of Wisconsin’s student population through observations and intervention.
Originating in September 2007 in wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, the Threat Assessment Response Team addresses dangers to the safety of campus.
In an interview last May with The Badger Herald, Kevin Helmkamp, associate dean of students and co-chair on the Threat Assessment Response Team, explained the responsibilities and implications of the committee.
“When information comes our way indicating that someone may pose a threat to other people, we assess that from the perspective of what’s the behavior and [determine if] something is a threat or not. Then we develop a response in those situations where we have any degree of concern,” Helmkamp said.
Once a subject is brought to the team’s attention, part of the committee – usually Helmkamp and his co-chair – analyzes the student’s behavior, looking for indicators of concern before calling the committee together to evaluate the thoroughness of its approach.
With more concerns identified, it is more likely that the team would intervene in some manner.
These indicators revolve around a person’s behavior with increased attention paid to reports of concern from several sources, especially ones that include talk of very specific and doable plans.
“If somebody says ‘I’m going to stab you,’ and we know they have access to knives, that’s a greater [immediate] concern than somebody who says I’m going to build a missile and target your home town,” Helmkamp said, referencing a case where a student talked about building an ICBM missile so he could destroy all of Wisconsin.
Some other indicators could also include an individual dehumanizing others, such as talking of people as if they are pigs or dogs, discussing killing someone in a distinct manner or behaving in a way that seems to indicate the person is rehearsing threatening actions in their mind.
“So somebody that is constantly talking about hurting other people and then says ‘Oh it’s just a joke,’ we don’t buy the joke,” Helmkamp said.
Although gathering information is the first step in the process, the threat assessment team does not have a fixed course of action; each case varies in how it is handled.
“Threat assessment is really about being proactive,” Helmkamp said. “Let’s intervene with that student, staff or student visitor before it gets to the point where somebody did hurt somebody else.”
The initial information regarding threatening behavior comes from a variety of sources with reports from classrooms, residence halls, apartments, UWPD or even Facebook reaching committee members’ desks.
“We have to rely more on people stepping forward and engaging with us rather than knowing every member of the student population,” Helmkamp said, comparing UW to smaller schools.
One of the reasons many students may not have heard of the assessment team before is in part because it is nearly impossible to quantify its success since its goal is preventing situations from happening.
“How do you measure something that didn’t occur”? Helmkamp asked rhetorically. “Have we had situations where students invoke Virginia Tech or talk about Virginia Tech? Yeah, and we’ve intervened with those students, quickly and appropriately so. Does that mean it would have led to a Virginia Tech situation? I have absolutely no knowledge of that, but I do know that whenever somebody talks about Virginia Tech, everybody sits up and listens.”
Although the Threat Assessment Response Team may not be able to clinch any flashy headlines for heroic actions, it does not imply their job is unimportant for the safety of the campus.
“I’m very confident in saying there have been many, many positive outcomes in interventions with students and others throughout the five years we’ve been doing this,” Helmkamp said. “If we didn’t have the team in place, you’re hoping for the best.”
If a threatening situation was occurring on campus, the team would warn students and the campus community, if need be, through a variety of mechanisms that involve UWPD as well as University Communications, including Wisc Alerts, emergency emails and various websites like Twitter and Facebook, Helmkamp said.
The committee, which meets twice a month during the academic year, consists of representatives from all across campus, including the Dean of Students Office, UWPD, Counseling and Consultation, Administrative Legal Services and University Communications to name a few.
UWPD, a significant part of the team, has the primary role of working as investigators, Lt. Peter Ystenes, co-chair of the Threat Assessment Team said.
“We are a police department, so if there are threats to the university, we are the arm of the university that investigates [the situation],” Ystenes said.
In assessing a threat, the team works to evaluate the individual holistically instead of reacting solely on the initial report of unusual or troublesome behavior, looking to the person’s past to reveal if the person might just be going through a ‘tough patch’ or if they have a bad track record.
“I sometimes think that threat assessment is a little bit like not just putting together a puzzle, but first you have to go through the entire house looking for the pieces,” Helmkamp said. “We want to learn as much as we can about [the individual].”
One common factor in piecing together the puzzle is determining if the behavior in concern is an isolated incident.
If a professor reports concern of a student’s behavior in one class, the committee will contact other professors to see if they are seeing the same things. The level of concern increases with each additional report from separate sources.
The amount of time a person has invested into the university is also an important factor that is noticed by the members of the team as it can show a certain “commitment” to the community.
Further research of such a person may show the person has no history of issues or concerns, which could indicate there is an explanation for the individual’s behavior, a situation where the student might simply need guidance or support.
“We try to figure out what we can do to reduce the possibility of any violent action taking place while at the same time helping the student to succeed here at the university,” Helmkamp said.
The outcome of the assessment can result in several scenarios, the harshest being the student is put on emergency suspension status because they pose an imminent threat to safety.
Asking the individual to engage in counseling, scheduling follow up meetings with Helmkamp himself or simply maintaining contact with the person are other possible outcomes.
“It’s a fairly complex thing that we try to do,” Helmkamp said. “[It’s] a lot of judgment calls. I tend to describe threat assessment as absolutely living in the world of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
The team is constantly assessing ways to improve the process, which Helmkamp described as learning as they go.
Following the theater and Sikh temple shootings this summer, the team talked about the events and evaluated what they might have done differently, Ystenes said.
“Every time we meet we try to think of better ways to serve the university to avoid such a traumatic event,” Ystenes said, noting, however, that the shootings didn’t result in any distinct changes in their evaluation process.
Although the team’s actions are reevaluated regularly, the members are aware of the team’s areas of limitation.
“We are understaffed in almost every arena of student life with this,” Helmkamp said. “This is something that, in all honesty, I could make a full-time position if we had the funds and the staff to do it.”
With additional funding and staff, the team would improve their records keeping, which would ensure follow-ups with students occur and would increase its outreach to academic departments and student groups.
Because of staffing limitations, it is difficult for committee members to go out and talk about what student community members or faculty could do to make sure the university is safer.
With such a broad range of unique behaviors and situations that can arise in a campus of more than 40,000 students, the task of preventing dangerous or life-threatening situations is no easy task.
In dealing with such a large campus, there are issues getting enough students to sign up for the emergency alerts, despite the wide range of options available to them, Ystenes said, stressing his encouragement for students to utilize the systems available to them in order to maximize effectiveness and ensure the university’s security.
“The safety of students who come here is paramount to everybody,” Helmkamp said. “Although it’s an extremely difficult job to do this and to do it well, it is important to the university that we have a group of people that are willing to step in and say, ‘I’m going to tackle these difficult situations and do the best we can.'”