In the fall of 2015, a university sophomore we will call Sophia spoke with her college’s Title IX coordinator, called Mr. Jones for the purposes of this article. Sophia told Jones that her former boyfriend—a sophomore at the same college—sexually assaulted her in 2014.
The two broke up over the summer, but Sophia thought her ex-boyfriend was stalking her now that they were both back on campus for the fall semester.
Jones told Sophia about her various options, including reporting the stalking to campus police or to local law enforcement, or filing a complaint with the college’s Student Conduct Office, which would then investigate and take action against her ex-boyfriend if necessary.
Jones also gave Sophia a list of support resources that she could access, including the college’s counseling center, women’s centers, and community-based resources for victims of domestic violence.
Sophia said she did not want to file a report with campus police or local law enforcement, but she did want to file a report with the Student Conduct Office.
Two days after filing her report, Sophia alerted Jones that she thought her ex-boyfriend was escalating his efforts to stalk her. She was afraid of what he might do to retaliate against her, and feared for her physical safety.
When Sophia mentioned that she feared for her own safety, Jones offered another option: he could alert the college’s threat assessment team to address the situation from a safety perspective.
The team could evaluate whether there was any threat posed to Sophia by her ex-boyfriend and could intervene—as necessary—to reduce the risk to Sophia while her report was investigated by the Student Conduct Office.
As higher education and security professionals are well aware, the last few years have seen many changes in the law and guidance addressing sexual violence, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking issues on college and university campuses.
Colleges and universities in the United States are now obligated to undertake certain actions when they become aware of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking at their institutions under new requirements from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) through Title IX guidance and enforcement and amendments to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act) made by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA).
Those requirements include taking swift action to investigate allegations of such incidents; notifying victims about the availability of protective and support resources; and notifying victims of their options to report the incident to law enforcement or to the institution’s conduct office or to opt not to report.
With the recent focus on the need for colleges and universities to aggressively pursue reports of sexual assault, interpersonal violence, and stalking, there has been little public discussion about the need to assess and maintain victim safety and campus safety while these investigations, called Title IX or Clery investigations, are undertaken. However, that is beginning to change.
Several prominent organizations and task forces have released reports on campus safety and violence prevention since the campus shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and at Northern Illinois University in 2008. All of these reports recommended that colleges and universities create threat assessment teams as a key measure to prevent violence before it occurs.
The threat assessment model is now advocated for use in higher education settings by entities at the federal and state levels, as well as various international and national associations. These include the U.S. Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services; the National Association of Attorneys General; the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators; and several state task forces.
In 2008, Virginia and Illinois both passed laws requiring colleges and universities to establish threat assessment teams. These laws apply to public higher education institutions in Virginia and to all higher education institutions in Illinois. In 2014, Connecticut also began requiring colleges and universities to be trained in campus threat assessment.
Additionally, in 2010 the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved a national standard for higher education risk analysis that is designed to identify, evaluate, and mitigate risks at higher education institutions and to help colleges and universities better allocate resources and prepare for emergencies.
“It is recommended that threat assessment teams be put into place on campus to help identify potential persons of concern and gather and analyze information regarding the potential threat posed by an individual(s),” the standard says.
Behavioral threat assessment is now recognized as a best practice for preventing campus violence and workplace violence at colleges and universities. Using threat assessment procedures can help enhance safety in Title IX and Clery cases in which there is a potential for ongoing interpersonal violence or stalking behavior, victims fear for their safety, or threats have been made before or after a victim files a police report or student conduct complaint.
In cases such as these, however, adhering to provisions of Title IX and the Clery Act is not enough; steps should be taken to identify and assess whether any threats are posed to those involved in these investigations and to manage the situation to reduce any such risk.
Integrating Threat Assessments
In an environment in which victims, advocates, and public servants commonly express concerns about campus response to sexual violence, colleges and universities must also assess threats while investigating these incidents and publishing crime statistics—as required by federal law.
To best address these safety concerns, the institution’s threat assessment team or behavioral intervention team should be involved to run a parallel threat assessment investigation that is separate from, but coordinated with, the institution’s Clery investigation.
This level of coordination requires some effort, but is vital and can be done using five steps to maintain victim safety and campus security during investigations.
Create a threat assessment team. Institutions should have a threat assessment team—or a similar multidisciplinary team that is trained in behavioral threat assessment and threat management.
The best threat assessment teams include representatives from student affairs, academic affairs, the counseling center, human resources, campus police or security, and ad hoc members who might be needed for particular cases, such as veterans’ services for cases involving veterans or international programs members for cases involving international students.
Once the team is assembled, it should be trained in behavioral threat assessment, have the authority to engage in threat assessment on behalf of the institution, have procedures to guide activities of the team, and have access to case management and support resources—on campus and in the community—to intervene where needed.
Having training in best practice procedures is critical to ensuring that the team is equipped to objectively assess any risk or threat posed, and to take appropriate steps to intervene to reduce risk and manage the situation going forward.
Many institutions have established threat assessment teams, but only a subset of them have ever been trained in threat assessment procedures. One institution, whose threat assessment team lacked qualified training, did not know how to handle a stalking case that was escalating and decided to call in outside expertise to reduce the prospect that the situation could turn violent.
If a team has not received training in threat assessment procedures, the group should make sure to check the qualifications of potential training vendors before hiring them.
Understand Clery requirements. All personnel involved in threat assessment and safety should know that the DOE has issued guidance on requirements that institutions face under Title IX and preamble comments on regulations issued to implement the VAWA revisions to the Clery Act.
Under these laws, colleges and universities must respond swiftly to reports of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking—not just those involving a threat assessment investigation.
This response must include providing information on confidential sources for victims to talk to and explaining reporting options to victims. The response must also include information on disciplinary and law enforcement reporting options should victims decide to report an incident to law enforcement or to the student conduct office.
In addition to responding to reports of sexual violence, colleges and universities must also actively work to prevent such crimes, including providing institutionwide training for students and employees.
Some colleges and universities are implementing mandated online training courses for students, as well as for faculty and staff, to raise awareness about sexual violence and the importance of bystander intervention.
But prevention efforts can also involve outreach from an institution’s threat assessment team to encourage people to report potentially dangerous situations and behaviors to the team when they become aware of them, so quick action can be taken to mitigate and reduce risk.
To address these wide-ranging duties and the increasing number of reports, institutions should have dedicated investigators to handle their Clery-related cases and responsibilities. In many cases, institutions will need to hire or retain these individuals.
Alert the team. Once an institution has a threat assessment team, those taking reports from victims must learn when to alert the team.
Although reports of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking are often referred to a Title IX coordinator or investigator, there may be ongoing safety concerns that should be addressed simultaneously and more broadly by a threat assessment team. If a report is made to an employee not designated as a “confidential employee,” that person can freely alert the threat assessment team.
Confidential employees include employees who are licensed medical, clinical, or mental-health professionals when acting in their professional role to provide services to a patient who is a university student. This category also includes university employees providing administrative, operational, and related support for healthcare providers performing these services.
Confidential employees are generally prohibited from reporting information to a college or university’s Title IX coordinator without permission from the individual who disclosed the information to them.
A confidential employee who receives a report should provide information about the threat assessment team to the victim or reporter, as well as provide options for reporting the incident and for safety planning.
If a risk is deemed sufficiently imminent to permit disclosure of privileged communications, the confidential employee could make other disclosures as necessary to promote safety. When victims better understand what a threat assessment team can do to enhance safety, they may be willing to have their situation reported to the team.
Get legal advice. Teams should seek advice from the institution’s legal counsel on how to address situations in which a victim requests confidentiality or anonymity.
In 2014, the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) published guidance on Title IX issues that clarified a 2011 document on the limits of confidentiality in certain situations.
For instance, the OCR recognized that institutions may not be able to respect requests for confidentiality where circumstances suggest there is an increased risk of further violence. The OCR included examples of these circumstances, such as multiple complaints about that person, a history of violence and arrests, multiple perpetrators, patterns of perpetration, use of weapons, and threats to commit further violence.
Train and practice, together. Personnel involved in Clery cases and those involved in threat assessment matters can learn a great deal about each other’s methods, resources, and obligations when they spend time together—preferably not just on active cases.
Finding opportunities to train together in tabletop exercises, and to train each other on their respective jurisdictions and areas of expertise, will enhance coordination and cooperation when faced with a high-risk case.
One threat assessment team, which had received training on trauma-informed investigations from its institution’s Title IX coordinator, increased its awareness about the effects of trauma. As a result, the team changed its approach to interviews with complainants of stalking.
Since the training, the team now chooses—where possible—to give its questions to Title IX investigators to ask of a complainant to avoid subjecting the individual to yet another interview on the same matter. This process is designed to minimize stress and additional trauma.
In Sophia’s case, involving the college’s threat assessment team helped the institution get a more complete picture of her safety and any potential danger she faced as the investigation unfolded.
One of the first options the team suggested was that either the Student Conduct Office or the campus police department issue a “no-contact order.” A no-contact order prohibits contact—whether in person, by phone, email, text, social media, or through a third party—between individuals at an institution where the college or university feels it is necessary to impose such a boundary.
No-contact orders are often issued by student conduct officers when they are investigating potential violations of a student code of conduct. The orders do not require the same level of evidence required to obtain a court-issued restraining order or protective order—but they carry significant consequences if violated.
For instance, some institutions can take immediate disciplinary and protective action if an order is violated, such as immediate suspension or barring the individual from campus.
This is a tool administered solely by the college and did not require Sophia to file a police report, even if the campus police department issued the order.
Following best practice threat assessment procedures, the threat assessment team in Sophia’s case gathered information from multiple sources about her ex-boyfriend and his recent behaviors and communications.
The team was able to corroborate Sophia’s accounts of his stalking behavior and discovered a series of disturbing posts he made on social media that suggested he was experiencing increasing desperation, and may have been suicidal.
A member of the team conducted a conversation with the ex-boyfriend, confirming his growing level of desperation. The team then assessed that Sophia’s case required intervention to reduce risk.
First, the team’s representative from the campus police department asked campus police to immediately transport Sophia’s ex-boyfriend to the college’s counseling center for a safety assessment to determine if he was suicidal.
At the same time, the team’s representative from the counseling center notified personnel at the center about the transport and provided information to the mental health provider who was conducting the assessment, so the provider had appropriate background information to include in the assessment.
In addition, the team asked the college’s Residential Life Office if it could provide Sophia with emergency alternate housing so her ex-boyfriend would not know where she was living. Campus police also provided Sophia with safety planning and offered to escort her around campus, if she wanted that service.
Sophia’s ex-boyfriend followed the no-contact order and did not have any contact with Sophia throughout the student conduct process. The team remained involved in monitoring the case as it proceeded and in conducting a follow-up assessment after her ex-boyfriend was sanctioned by the college.
The team was actively involved in the case until it assessed that Sophia’s ex-boyfriend no longer posed a threat to her—which was several months after the conclusion of the investigation.
Finding ways to improve communication and coordinate efforts between Title IX/Clery personnel and threat assessment teams can help security protect students. A multidisciplinary approach to training, assessing threats, and responding to incident reports can help ensure a safer campus for all.
Marisa R. Randazzo, Ph.D., is a managing partner of SIGMA Threat Management Associates and former chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service. Jeffrey J. Nolan, JD, is a partner at Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, P.C. Dorian Van Horn is a senior consultant with SIGMA Threat Management Associates and former division chief of the Threat Management Unit for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.