June 28, 2017

The System Worked… We Think

Violence prevention will never be an exact science, because we can never know with certainty when it succeeds. Sometimes, though, even without absolute proof, professionals feel reasonably sure that their strategy and practices did in fact keep a violent act from occurring. The head of security and public safety for a large urban university (not named here to avoid possibly identifying any of the people involved) relates this example:

A student told his girlfriend he had “had to kill somebody” — the implication was that it was in self-defense — while coming home at night from a sports event. The girlfriend, who was attending a different college, was troubled enough to call the boy’s parents, who responded by driving to his campus to speak to someone in the counseling office. After hearing the parents’ story the counselors immediately called public safety, reaching the office at 6:30 in the evening just as senior staffers were leaving office. “The counselors called us right away,” the security chief recalled, instead of waiting for a scheduled meeting.

When campus public safety staff checked with the local police, they found that nothing corresponding to the student’s story had happened. Instead, it appeared the boy had made the incident up, perhaps to impress the girlfriend. It also became clear that the student was under pressure, struggling with a very heavy course load and an overbearing father who was intensely concerned with his son’s academic record. The boy’s emotional state, campus authorities concluded, made it unsafe for him to remain in the dorm. Over strong objections from the father, who feared that missing any classes might lower his grades, the student was sent home. But the university remained involved, and were closely enough in touch that campus staffers were immediately alerted when at one point, the boy left home in the family’s car heading for his girlfriend’s college. The university public safety office contacted the girlfriend’s school and arranged for the boy to be intercepted before he got near the girl.

Counselors feared for him more than for the girlfriend, the public safety head remembered. They believed he might do harm to himself in an effort to get attention. In the event, authorities were able to intervene before any harm was done, whether to the boy or anyone else. Following the intercepted visit to his girlfriend, campus police and the university counseling service continued to monitor and work with the student as he got the necessary intensive treatment. Ultimately the treatment was successful and the boy returned to school. As always, of course, the negative can’t be proved: there can be no absolute proof that a significant violent act would have happened if university counselors and police had not acted as they did. But the public safety head thinks it is likely that the quick communication from the counseling service to his office and their subsequent cooperative efforts did indeed prevent a possible tragedy — and helped a young man retrieve a life and an education that might well have been lost. The case, he said, was “an example of threat assessment, call it whatever you want, working very well.”