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Threat Reporting Made Easy

Thomas Nelson Community College is one of the larger members of the Virginia Community College System, with more than 15,000 students and 700 faculty and staff on its campuses every day at locations in Hampton, Newport News, and Williamsburg. Like all college and university campuses in Virginia, it must comply with state requirements put in place after the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) shooting in 2007 that left 33 dead. Those requirements include having a violence prevention committee and a threat assessment team, and a process by which these groups can detect and address threats before they become tragic incidents.

As a part of meeting those mandates, in 2007, the school’s IT department created an online threat reporting tool for faculty and students to use. But in 2011, when Garth MacDonald, Thomas Nelson Office of Safety and Emergency Preparedness program manager, was hired and joined the Threat Assessment Team (TAT), he concluded that the tool wasn’t working as well as it should.

“What they had the IT folks at Thomas Nelson design was usable, but it wasn’t really friendly. Data could be easily lost,” he explains. The problem was that when threats were reported electronically, they were sent to the TAT, but the first person who opened the report was forced to download it to their computer, making it unavailable to the other team members. “Nobody could see it. And then we had to rely on word of mouth [when] contacting the team, and it made the potential for something being missed more of a reality,” MacDonald notes.

So MacDonald got the go-ahead from the other TAT members to begin looking into other options for reporting suspicious activities on campus and discovered the Threat Assessment, Incident Management, and Prevention Services (TIPS) hotline from Awareity, Inc., of Lincoln, Nebraska. “As we sat down and looked at the tools that we needed to do what was required from the code, we found that the TIPS program was a really good fit for us,” MacDonald says.

In May 2012, after a trial period was completed, and the TAT determined that TIPS was a good $1,200 yearly investment, the school officially launched the hotline in May 2012 through the community college’s Web site. 

TIPS is a customizable service that administrators can set up with their own criteria and fields for reporting. Thomas Nelson customized it to allow users to report their campus location, the name and description of the person they are reporting, the location of the incident, and details of the incident. There is also an option to include contact information if the person wants to receive follow-ups on the report.

Tipsters are not required to identify themselves. The college decided to allow tipsters the option of remaining anonymous to avoid any instance “where people wouldn’t report something because they weren’t comfortable,” MacDonald says. He adds that “we felt it was better to get all the data than miss something that was potentially actionable.” The types of concerns reported may range from sexual harassment to aggressive acts to signs of emotional distress. Users can also upload supporting documents when making a report.

“If you take a picture or you have an e-mail or you scan something in, you can attach that to your report, which is a great tool for us as we go through the process,” MacDonald says.

The next step, where the concern or person reported does not present an imminent threat, is to talk to faculty, staff, and students to assess the validity of the concern. The threat assessment team will also likely ask a school counselor to step in and set up a meeting to talk with the individual whose actions or behaviors have been reported. 

The most important aspect of reporting is following up. The initial assessment and meeting with the individual who has been brought to the threat assessment team’s attention through TIPS or otherwise is not the end of the process. The team follows up with those individuals throughout their time at the community college. Individuals can refuse to meet with a counselor, but MacDonald says that, so far, no one has refused to attend a meeting. “And we’ve recently developed memorandums of agreement with our local mental health service boards so that they are a second tier of access for us, because we can’t really provide mental health services at a community college. We just don’t have the assets,” MacDonald explains. “But now we have that avenue so that we can get them advanced care, and it’s really working out well for us.”

MacDonald says he thinks TIPS has been an effective method for enabling reports of suspicious activity on campus, and Thomas Nelson plans to continue to educate faculty, staff, and students about how to use it. One way is by mentioning the TIPS program and where to find it in literature and on cards given to students when they come to any office, such as financial aid, he says. “And they are diligent about handing those out. In fact, I’m due to print up another batch.”

Of course, where the threat is immediate, such as a shooter on campus scenario, the community is encouraged to report this directly to the police, but if the report comes in through the TIPS line, the police are notified as soon as the report is received.

The school had received more than 50 reports on the TIPS line as of August 21, 2013, which covers a period of about 15 months since launch. A majority of those incidents were reports of concern for students’ well-being and emotional health, although some were reports of suspicious activity, MacDonald says. “It is much more than what we were receiving under the original program that IT had developed for us,” explains MacDonald. But he attributes the increase to a rise in awareness, rather than a heightened risk environment. “I think we’re seeing an increase in reporting, not necessarily an increase in incidents.” n

(For more information: Rick Shaw, president and founder, Awareity, Inc.; phone: 402/730-0090; e-mail:[email protected] )