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[Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment in a three-part series about behavioral intervention teams. Read the first article about the goals and structure of a team. Read the third article about how a team responds to low and high level threats.]
By Jon Hager, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
To keep colleges and universities safe, behavioral intervention teams monitor individuals showing potentially dangerous behavior both on-campus and in online classrooms. Intervention teams are tasked with stepping in before an individual takes violent action, but they rely heavily on individuals reporting when someone is exhibiting concerning behavior. But what constitutes concerning behavior?
As a core member of an intervention team, I often get questions from students or colleagues about what behaviors should be reported. I fall back on the old adage and tell them, “If you hear or see something, say something.” No matter how insignificant a behavior may appear, it’s best to report it and let the intervention team determine the level of threat. In some cases, reports end up being a misunderstanding and are dismissed. But in other cases, a behavior that seems minor may actually be indicative of something more concerning.
Behaviors to Look for on Campus
In a traditional campus setting where individuals interact face to face, there will likely be a range of behaviors that are worth reporting. On the lower end of the spectrum are annoying and disruptive behaviors, which can include someone not understanding personal boundaries, displaying disrespectful conduct, having emotional outbursts, or failing to follow instructions from a professor or authority. While these behaviors alone may not seem threatening, they can often be indicative of a person struggling and/or needing help. Reporting such behavior can initiate a person getting the assistance they need and addressing behavior before it escalates.
Should all claims of annoying and disruptive behaviors be reported? Any behavior that is disruptive to the college, staff, faculty, students, or the public should be reported no matter how minimal it may initially seem. Allow the intervention team to determine the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the behavior.
A step up from annoying behaviors is concerning behaviors. Concerning behaviors include acts of physical aggression, abuse (emotional, sexual, physical, financial, psychological), stalking, drug abuse, and bullying. If someone mentions or threatens using weapons or violence to resolve a problem or expresses violent fantasies, those behaviors should always be reported. Another sometimes overlooked, but equally concerning behavior, is when someone expresses a deep sense of hopelessness. This may indicate they have “nothing to lose” and are heading down the path of engaging in harmful or violent behavior, whether to themselves or others. These types of concerning behaviors should always be reported to authorities because they are more likely to escalate to violent or harmful actions.
Behaviors to Look for in Online Classes
The same concerning behaviors expressed in a traditional setting should also be reported if expressed in online classes. In the online classroom environment, concerning behaviors would most likely present themselves in discussion forums, which are commonly completed during the first week of class. Students tend to share their feelings more freely in introduction forums, especially in an online-only environment. Students may indicate that they are homeless, discuss a recent death of a family member, express distress, express frustration as a result of mental illness (current/former U.S. military member), among many more. The professor should carefully read each introduction forum to identify any potential concerns.
Additionally, concerning behaviors may be displayed via email. A student may email a professor telling him or her about some form abuse occurring at home that is preventing the student from completing work in a timely manner. When information of this nature is shared in an educational setting, faculty is legally mandated to share such information with authorities (i.e., the intervention team). Faculty should explicitly tell the student that they are obligated to forward the information provided to the appropriate staff.
How to Report Concerning Behaviors
Reports of concern are usually completed online through a college’s website. Online reporting systems are convenient and allow the complainant and/or victim to remain anonymous. Some universities and colleges also have an anonymous tip line where reports can be made over the phone or text message. These reporting mechanisms should be well advertised, easily found, and should be posted on the university’s homepage, in classrooms, and student gathering areas.
Educating the Community about Reporting
When educating the college or university community about reporting concerning behavior, individuals should be instructed to provide as many details as possible in the complaint. Accurate, detailed reporting provides a narrative of the circumstances surrounding each case. When possible, the reporter should submit screenshots or pictures with the complaint for further evidence.
Once a complaint is submitted, it is immediately sent to the chair (or designated member) of the intervention team. From this point, an assessment is made regarding the behavior. Not all concerning behaviors are resolved through the intervention team. Depending on the severity, some cases are referred to other areas of the college such as student affairs, academic affairs, counseling, or the police department. The university or college should have a very clear process of how to address the complaint, follow-up with the reporter, and document all information presented.
About the Author: Jon Hager has worked in the criminal justice field since 2000 in the capacity of private fire investigations, autopsy technician, and as a medical examiner investigator and a forensic science professor. Jon obtained a B.S. in anthropology from Hamline University, a M.S. in forensic science from the University of New Haven and a doctorate in psychology with a concentration in criminal justice from the University of the Rockies. Jon is currently an adjunct professor of criminal justice at American Military University. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.