Sept. 22, 2009

Cornell formalizes how it assesses disturbing behavior

What happens if a Cornell student e-mails a threatening message to a faculty member? Or if a staff member displays a disturbing statement on her Facebook page?

The university now has a formal process to quickly assess whether a member of its community is on a path to violence -- or simply displaying the unappealing side of human nature.

The threat assessment protocol lays out guidelines for action should Cornell's threat assessment team receive a report that a student, employee or affiliate has exhibited disturbing behavior or language that raises concern about future violent behavior. It formalizes the communication network that is already in place, said Gregory Eells, director of Counseling and Psychological Services. "We're making sure we have a mechanism that covers our legal bases, where law enforcement is weighing in and we have a mental health perspective, to do the best we can as an institution to create a safer campus."

The assessment team consists of Eells; Kathy Zoner, interim Cornell Police chief; and Nelson Roth, deputy university counsel. To make a report, call Cornell Police or a member of the threat assessment team.

The team is trained to assess potentially violent situations, Eells said. However, there are no simple solutions.

"These situations are always about balancing the rights of individuals and of the community," he said. "This team is a vehicle to do that, and to do it in a thoughtful way."

When the team receives a report, it gathers information to assess whether the individual poses a threat of violence. They may talk with the individual's family, co-workers, classmates, friends and professors, or look into their school records and mental health information, or both. Depending on the situation, the team may expand to include college advisers, human resource representatives, employee assistance program counselors, the dean of students office, health professionals, other law enforcement officials or behavior analysis experts.

If the team identifies a threat of violence, it may recommend that university officials intervene or refer the situation to an outside law enforcement agency. A student could be referred to the vice president for student and academic services for consideration of involuntary leave, or to the Office of the Judicial Administrator. A staff member could be considered for termination of employment. The team could also mandate mental health services, notify family members or issue a " persona non grata " status, which bars the individual from campus.

The team will keep records of all the situations it assesses and will submit an annual report to the Executive Committee on Campus Health and Safety.

Nationally, the public has become more aware of -- and more anxious about -- violence on college campuses in the past decade, Eells said. "But campuses are still very, very safe -- much safer than being off campus."

The protocol is available online in PDF format at the Cornell Police Web site, http://www.cupolice.cornell.edu/; click on the "Safety" tab and select "Threat Assessment Protocol" from the pull-down menu.