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Team intervenes for student behavior

Published: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 11:10

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THE BEHAVIOR INTERVENTION TEAM deals with "students of concern." These students are nominated by other students around campus who display questionable behavior. ARMEN HOVSEPYAN photo illustration

• Tyler Clementi, Rutgers University: jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22 after being publicly "out-ed" as homosexual.

    • Amy Bishop, University of Alabama: shot and killed three faculty members, injuring three more on Feb. 12.

    • Seung Cho, Virginia Tech University: shot 32 people before killing himself on April 16, 2007.

    All these individuals committed acts of violence on university campuses; one became the catalyst for a nationwide movement.

    USU's Behavior Intervention Team is the on-campus support group that handles any reports about students of concern. If a student or faculty member is showing signs of destructive or disruptive behavior, concerned roommates and peers are encouraged to fill out a confidential "student of concern" report, found on the university's campus safety page.

    Eric Olsen, associate vice president of Student Services, said though the team does work with some serious threats, most of the work done is with students who are worried about roommates or friends hurting themselves.

    Olsen said the main goal of the Behavior Intervention Team is not to dismiss students, but to keep students in school and maintain safety on campus. One of the benefits of the program, he said, is that several groups on campus are talking about the students.

    When a report is filled out, a copy is sent to all necessary parties, sometimes including the on-campus counseling center, Student Health and Wellness or campus police. This, Olsen said, provides the best chance of helping the student.

    In a presentation provided by campus safety, it was stated that a "student of concern" displays disruptive, distressed or threatening behavior. There are different levels of concern, ranging from inattentive, unkempt and absent to erratic, irrational and aggressive or threatening.

    Behavior Intervention Teams, sometimes referred to as Threat Assessment Teams, are becoming a staple for higher education across the country, Olsen said. He said while some universities may have had informal teams, few had anything like the organizations we have now until after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

    According to an article by the Washington Post, at 5 a.m. on April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior studying at Virginia Tech, was seen by his roommate in his suite in West Ambler Hall.

    Two hours later, police responded to reports of a shooting at the dorm, where they found two people dead. It appeared to be an isolated incident, and police immediately secured the area and called in Blacksburg police to establish a perimeter around the campus.

    Over the next two hours, the incident was investigated as classes started. At 9:01 a.m., Cho stopped at the post office and mailed a package of tapes, writings and pictures to NBC.

    Within the next half-hour, students and faculty were notified of the shootings in West Ambler Hall by e-mail and a recorded message was sent to all campus phones. At 9:45, police received reports of a shooting in Norris Hall, which contained offices, classrooms and labs.

    When police arrived, the doors were barricaded and gunfire could be heard. Students and faculty were then notified that a gunman was loose on campus. When police were able to break through the doors, the gunshots had stopped.

    They were then able to locate the shooter, Cho, who had killed himself. The number of deaths, including Cho's, totalled 33, with 25 injured during what is now known as the "Virginia Tech Massacre."

    Mark Owczarski, director of news and information at Virginia Tech, said the events of that day are difficult to express in a summary. He said it "changed Virginia Tech and all of its members."

    It's something that affected us all. We will never be the same. We will be permanently changed."

    Owczarski said any school setting is viewed as a safe haven where we send our children to learn and grow. Events like Virginia Tech, he said, remind us that "we live in a world where these things happen."

    "It doesn't have to be at that extreme," he said. "How many times do you leave the doors unlocked or walk alone at night? All of us are as prone to it as the next person."

    These acts of violence, specifically at Virginia Tech, are what jump-started the organization of Behavior Intervention Teams at many universities, with some states beginning to pass laws requiring the teams, Owczarski said.

    The USU program received 33 reports in the 2009 calendar year and only 17 in the 2010 calendar year. These dropping numbers may be because many students aren't aware of the service.

    Clarke Holland, a senior studying history, said he feels the lack of knowledge is due to a shortage of advertisement. Holland said if he had a situation with another student, he probably would have just handled it himself because he didn't know the program existed.

    "I don't want to say that because they aren't known they aren't effective," Holland said, "but I think if they were more well-known on campus student support would be more effective."

    Even with Behavior Intervention and Threat Assessment teams in play, not all campus violence is stopped. The question arises, are universities doing everything they can to prevent these incidences? Holland said they are.

    "What else can you do?" he said. "What else are they supposed to do? I think what a university should do is have all the available resources. I think the fact that students are aware that programs like these exist is enough."

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