College crisis team aims to prevent violence

At an Orange Coast College night class more than a year ago, a student walked outside during a break and said he wanted to kill the professor, according to a school official.

The student then pointed his index finger, mimicking a gunshot from a pistol, said Vice President of Student Services Kristin Clark.

Another student who saw the incident told the professor. Campus safety officers ended up escorting the first student off campus, Clark said.

After class, officers made sure the professor safely made it to her car.

"She was petrified," Clark said.

The incident was then handed over to a team at OCC that investigates student behavior and maintains files on dozens of individuals who could pose a threat to themselves or others on campus.

The idea, according to members of the Behavioral Assessment Team, or BAT, is to act preemptively by studying student behavior and offering help before a situation goes bad.

"The essence of this is not to be Big Brother, or peg students, or put labels on them; it's to try to provide help," Clark said. "Our philosophy is to try to assess any kind of threat or student in crisis immediately and get them the resources they need as fast as we possibly can."

Clark sits on the board with acting Dean of Student Services Carla Martinez, Associate Dean of Student Support Programs Steve Tamanaha, Director of Campus Safety John Farmer and Associate Dean of Student Health Services Sylvia Worden.

In non-emergency situations, faculty and staff can report any disruptive or concerning behavior to BAT, Clark said, sometimes prompting the team to open a file.

Reports range from overly stressed students, someone talking to himself in the back of class or outright threats, BAT members said.

A typical file includes interviews with employees and students, according to BAT members.

If a student in question accesses mental health services at OCC's health center, that can also be placed in the file, but the details about what happened at the appointment are never included, Clark said.

So far, the group has compiled files on 45 students, according to one member, however not all those cases remain open.

Although BAT has existed for years, incidents of violence affecting other college campuses have pushed the team to up its game, one BAT member said.

Jared Loughner's 2011 shooting rampage in Tuscon that killed six and wounded 13 — including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — sparked the team into further action.

"That was a community college student," Worden said of Loughner.

The team is trying to spread the word about an online reporting system for faculty and staff. They plan to establish a system to handle student reports too.

What the teams finds when it investigates reports can reveal a student in crisis or on the verge of harm, Clark said.

"This is a student that says, 'Yeah, right now I want to hurt myself. I want to die right now,'" Clark said. "Those are the students that, when that happens we call the Costa Mesa PD and they have a unit that handles it."

In the spring semester, four students from OCC were placed on an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric hold known as a 5150, Clark said.

Although there's no established protocol for this, Clark said the BAT plans to keep files on students until they graduate or leave campus, or investigators close the file, which indicates BAT members think any threat or crisis has passed.

"We probably have five or six BAT cases that are open at about any given time," Worden said.

Other local community colleges have teams that do much of the same thing but without the centralized filing system or investigations.

Both Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College representatives said they have crisis and intervention resources available to students, but neither has a team that actively identifies and keeps files on students.

Both Clark and Worden say information in the BAT files is private and only shared on a need-to-know basis outlined by federal guidelines.

For instance, BAT members don't generally give information to local law enforcement and only involve police when they believe a crime has been committed.

"We do live in a nation of due process where we don't arrest you for uncommitted crimes," Worden said.

In the case of the student who said he wanted to shoot his teacher, it never rose to the level of calling police. Clark called in the student to interview him.

She decided there wasn't really a possibility the student would follow through on the perceived shooting threat.

"He said [he wanted to shoot her] ... because he was angry at the teacher," Clark said. "I don't think there was any intention."

The student didn't understand the gravity of the statement he made, Clark said, so the BAT didn't open a file on him, instead deciding to explain to him why what he did was inappropriate.

Clark said she can't judge the effectiveness of the program because it's impossible to predict when or if situations would escalate to violence, but, "I think we've helped students avoid going into a major crisis mode."

She continued, "We cannot predict violence, but we can try to prevent it. That's our job."

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