Intervention teams balance campus safety, student liberty

'Prevention is invisible'

Behavioral intervention teams (BITs) were created to make campuses safer, but critics say the groups go too far sometimes, Ryan Foley reports for the Associated Press.

Administrators from various departments make up BITs, and they meet regularly to discuss possible individuals of concern and plans of action. These teams discuss anything from a student in crisis to potentially problematic social media posts. Interventions can include encouraging a student to seek mental health treatment or asking police to investigate an incident.

Many institutions created BITs in the wake of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) massacre in 2007, seeking to identify troubled students and intervene before any violent action takes place. While various Virginia Tech administrators said they had noticed warning signs about gunman Seung-Hui Cho, they did not share their observations or pick up a pattern before Cho killed 32 people.

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However, BITs may lack appropriate oversight. Half of teams do not have official policies detailing how they must operate, says Brian Van Brunt, president of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association.

"You have schools that are overreacting," he says. "As soon as you give people the tools to watch, you can run into overzealous individuals."

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Missteps can land schools with legal problems and reputation damage. 

"Too often, campuses overreact to protected speech without first asking the threshold question: Is the incident we're responding to an example of a student or professor just exercising their basic First Amendment rights?" says Will Creeley, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's VP of legal and public advocacy.

For example, the Foundation represented a Bergen Community College art professor last year who was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and placed on paid leave for threatening violence after he posted online a picture of his daughter doing yoga. She was wearing a shirt bearing a "Game of Thrones" quote: "I will take what is mine with fire & blood." The institution later backed off the punishment and admitted it "may have unintentionally erred and potentially violated [his] constitutional rights."

BIT supporters say the groups do prevent violence on campus, but they cannot prove it because of privacy laws and the difficulty in determining the deciding factor in why something never happened.

"Prevention is invisible," says Lisa Walter, police chief at the University of Wisconsin-Stout (Foley, AP/U.S. News & World Report, 11/21).

Study: Best practices for behavioral intervention teams

As the number of incoming students needing mental health and personal support increases, institutions are stretched thin trying to fill the demand.

The Student Affairs Forum's Responding to Students of Concern study and toolkit examines how behavioral intervention teams (BITs) can help engage students through community outreach and education, streamline student tracking, expand referral networks, and improve case management models.

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