Penn State Behavioral Threat Management Team strives to keep community safe

For the CDTJanuary 2, 2014 

  • TEAM MEMBERS

    •  Chairman Steve Shelow, assistant vice president for police and public safety;

    •  Joe Puzycki, assistant vice president for student affairs;

    •  Diane Andrews, senior director of residence life;

    •  Rebecca Bywater, manager of threat assessment and community education with university police;

    •  Yvonne Gaudelius, associate dean for undergraduate education;

    •  Dennis Heitzmann, senior director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services;

    •  Ken Lehrman, vice provost for affirmative action;

    •  Bob Maney, senior director of employee relations;

    •  Amy McCall, associate general counsel;

    •  Danny Shaha, senior director of the Office of Student Conduct;

    •  Lisa Squire, a senior director in the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses; and

    •  Regina Vasilatos-Younken, senior associate dean for the Graduate School.

— The Dec. 14 anniversary of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings and deadly incidents such as the September shootings at the Washington Navy Yard have put a spotlight on Penn State’s Behavioral Threat Management Team.

Composed of 12 University Park staff and faculty members, the team serves as a connection between an observer and someone that person suspects might cause harm. It encourages people to report suspicious behavior even if it turns out to be a mistake.

“We’re trying to avoid people saying, ‘I always had that feeling,’ ” said Rebecca Bywater, manager of threat assessment and community education with university police. “We give the opportunity to report and make sure we can intervene.”

The team meets weekly to discuss cases. Each case is different, so there is no set length of time the team spends on one individual, Bywater said.

The team also has trained members of various departments on campus.

A 2011 report in a University Risk Management and Insurance Association journal called for the creation of threat assessment and management teams on campuses in the wake of the 2007 shooting deaths at Virginia Tech.

The report described how a team works: It begins by screening an initial report, followed by a full threat assessment inquiry. It evaluates the person or situation to determine if there is a threat of violence or self-harm, then develops and carries out a plan to intervene and minimize the threat. It closes and documents the case once the person no longer appears to pose a threat.

Many universities have the option of creating a threat assessment team, but some states, including Virginia and Illinois, require them, according to a Dec. 12 New York Times report.

Although Pennsylvania does not require them, Bywater said Penn State determined it would be safer to have teams at University Park and the commonwealth campuses.

However, having a threat assessment team does not mean that everyone is aware of it.

To encourage people to report strange behavior — the team’s website lists behaviors including suicidal thoughts, rebellion against authority and violent fantasies — it has distributed folders, posters and wallet cards, and has made class presentations for the past three years.

The team also works closely with anyone who is seen as a threat to him or herself or to the community. As the team investigates, it makes sure the person receives counseling, Bywater said.

Being reported or considered a threat does not mean a person is in trouble with police or the Penn State administration.

The team’s priority is to make sure the individual is OK, Bywater said. If the individual is a student, the team checks with the person’s professors to inform them about the situation and provides the person with the services they need.

Bywater said the team hopes to encourage such individuals to think differently and be healthy, and wants to get the person on track and headed toward a successful career.

Amy Ross is a Penn State journalism student.

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