Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, University of Arizona, University of Alabama all have a grim fact in common. Someone from within their midst — student or faculty member — committed mass murder on campus.
The response to campus shootings by some state legislatures and the gun lobby has been to push for guns to be allowed on campus, in spite of a lack of evidence that such a move would improve campus safety and not harm it. In a counter action, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and 348 colleges and universities have joined the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. Many of them have a better idea.
Since 2007, when 32 people died in a shooting at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, a widespread movement has grown for schools to set up formal threat-assessment committees. Ironically–given the knee-jerk reaction of the state’s legislature in pushing for guns on campus–a couple of very effective programs began years ago at both Arizona State University (late 1980s) and the University of Arizona (2002).
The idea behind these committees is that students or faculty can report concerns that are then investigated; the pooling of knowledge the school has about a specific person from his records combined with what is available through public records. Rich Wilson, a former police chief at ASU, told The Arizona Republic that these committees ideally draw their members from several fields, such as public safety, mental health services, and student services. ASU gets about 150 complaints a year, most of which are then effectively resolved. For UofA, the number is about 100. Interventions sometimes are as dramatic as expulsion or involuntary commitment, but the overriding goal is to get the individual some help before he/she becomes a danger to self or others.
The system isn’t perfect. Confidentiality laws keep the schools from sharing information with outside agencies. For example, Jared Loughner was listed by Pima Community College as a danger when he was in the process of withdrawing from classes; but he didn’t become violent on campus. He shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and some of her constituents at a nearby Tucson shopping center. Nevertheless, the programs are building a record of success in accomplishing their mission, raising the safety level on campuses, and getting help for troubled people.