University programs work to promote emergency preparedness

Since Oct. 1, five shootings have occurred across colleges and universities in Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina. As these acts of campus violence reignite national debates about guns and mental health, Tufts added a reminder to students’ home pages in Student Information Services (SIS) about the university’s prevention initiative, Tufts Threat Assessment and Management (TTAM) programwhich University President Anthony Monaco announced in an open letter on Oct. 7, 2013

In order to ensure that we can identify, evaluate and address potentially threatening situations affecting members of the Tufts community, the university has recently established the [TTAM] program, whose trained threat assessment and management teams will evaluate and address violence and threats of violence made towards members of the university community,” Monaco wrote in the letter. 

Consisting of teams from different schools and departments, TTAM aims to create a safe environment through early identification of danger.

This multidisciplinary approach to threat assessment and management has been developed in close collaboration with senior leaders across the university, with assistance from nationally recognized experts on how to prevent violence on campus,” Monaco wrote. 

Perah Kessman, the case manager for TTAM, explained that the program is responsible for accepting and evaluating reports of threats in order to defuse a situation before it becomes violent.

TTAM is designed to identify people on the Tufts campus — or in the Tufts community, rather — who are exhibiting threatening behavior or are making threats to harm other people,” Kessman said. “The program is designed to identify those folks, then make an assessment as to whether or not the situation is one that requires a TTAM type of intervention, which is essentially connecting them to a wide array of supports to avert a…threatening crisis.”

Kessman emphasized that TTAM approaches reported threats under the assumption that individuals often approach violence gradually rather than suddenly.

“People don’t just snap,” Kessman said. “The good news about that is that if they’re on a pathway [to violence], we can get them off the pathway. We can intervene.”

One of the things that we try really hard to do is to look at behavior and not look at people or characteristics,” she said. “A lot of times, people will become concerned about someone because they dye their hair or pierce their whatever, and that’s, to us, not indicative of someone who is threatening … Those are outward manifestations, but they’re not actual threatening behaviors. We’re looking more at what is the person doing that makes other people afraid.”

Kessman explained that, in order to be effective, TTAM relies on the Tufts community to report potentially threatening behavior over the phone or through the TTAM website. Then, TTAM teams can begin to piece together a puzzle. By collecting reports from various individuals and offices, a fuller picture of the individual in question emerges, and TTAM determines the proper course of action.

“Once we take in a report and we determine that it is going to be screened into TTAM, we’ll conduct our own internal investigation that is a confidential investigation, [which] is simply a fact-finding mission,” Kessman said. “We’re trying to pull as many tangible facts about the person who’s come to our attention…as possible.”

Kessman said that the team will look at such subjects holistically during this anonymous investigation. She mentioned that if the person is a student, they will look at the student’s academic performance, extracurricular involvement, social situations and interactions with university administrators.

Not all threats, however, are of the same magnitude, she said. Depending on the situation, Kessman said TTAM might take various approaches.

One of the primary things that we’re trying to do is highlight that we’re not an adversarial program,” she said. “We do work a lot with other offices and departments within the university to connect people to really a wide variety of supports. So sometimes it’s as simple as getting someone connected with the Counseling Center, or with Health Services in general, or sometimes they need financial support, maybe they’re here on a visa, maybe there’s something going on in their social relationships outside of the university. It really depends on what the situation is, but our hope is really to identify a gap and then connect the person with whatever type of resource is going to fill in that gap for them.”

Michael Baenen, President Monaco’s representative on the TTAM policy group, agreed on TTAM’s role in terms of providing support for the individual accordingly, reiterating that its role is largely to collect and evaluate submitted information.

The goal is to ensure that situations or behavior that members of the community worry may be threatening are looked at carefully in the interests of campus safety,” Baenen told the Daily in an email. “The teams are designed to include input from a variety of different perspectives, and the process is structured to ensure that there is consistency and thoroughness in the approach. Even when the process determines that an individual who is brought to TTAM’s attention does not pose a threat to others, the process can help connect that person with helpful resources.”

TTAM, like Tufts University Police Department (TUPD), operates within the Department of Public and Environmental Safety, but while TUPD plays a role in threat response and works closely with TTAM, Kessman pointed out that the two departments are not the same and have different missions on the Tufts campuses.

“We are obviously very much affiliated with TUPD, but we are not TUPD, so we really want to stress that we are more a university program than a public safety directed program,” Kessman said. 

Geoffrey Bartlett, the deputy director of Public and Environmental Safety and director of Emergency Management, explained that while TTAM is a crucial aspect of incident prevention, TUPD is trained to react should an incident occur. One way in which this training takes place is through incident simulation. Over the summer, Tufts held an inter-agency simulation of an active shooter incident on the Medford campus, titled Operation “Spartan Shield.”

“‘Spartan Shield’ represents the response should an incident occur, and we have to be prepared,” Bartlett said. “Even if the likelihood of an active shooter incident is incredibly low, it could happen, so we need to be prepared to respond to that kind of an incident.”

Operation “Spartan Shield” represents the highest level of complexity as a full-scale exercise, Bartlett explained. Tufts holds these types of simulations every other year during the summer and involves many different agencies in and around the Tufts community, he said. “Spartan Shield,” for example, involved staff at the Tisch Library.

“[Library staff], of course, were aware that an exercise was taking place, and we made sure that they wanted to participate — nobody had to participate if they didn’t want to,” Bartlett said. “But one of the things that we wanted to both evaluate and strengthen was how people who are not public safety responders responded in that kind of an incident … The library staff…didn’t know exactly what the scenario was going to be. We’d provided them with training and then we simulated an incident and asked them to respond as they think they should, based on what they learned from their training.”

The operation also involved volunteers, who acted as general citizens throughout the simulation. According to Bartlett, this added an important degree of realism to the simulation.

Aside from full-scale exercises like Operation “Spartan Shield,” the Office of Emergency Management also engages in other, smaller-scale exercises throughout the year. Such exercises include one to two operations-based exercises on each campus every year, along with various discussion-based exercises, according to Bartlett.

We also do what we call ‘tabletop exercises,’ which is a discussion-based exercise,” Bartlett said. “We sit in a room and talk through a given scenario. We’ve done that with multiple agencies, and we’ve done that with much smaller groups … We usually do a couple tabletop exercises a year on different topics.”

Bartlett also explained that, although TUPD does not discuss the details of its planned responses to violent incidents, the university process involves giving people specific instructions regarding how to stay safe.

“If…an [active shooter] incident took place, [students would] get an alert message which provided them succinct instructions to take shelter. University police would respond; notifications would occur that would begin to engage university administration.”

Bartlett continued to explain how an emergency response would generally play out, emphasizing the role of the community.

“There would be an immediate public safety response, which would deal with the immediate situation at the location of the incident,” he said. “But then more broadly, members of the university would come together in what we call an Emergency Operations Center…either by telephone, or eventually we’d get together in the same room and address the broader needs of response for the university, assisting victims and survivors, beginning to make some decisions about what this means as far as university operations … It’s much bigger than just first-responders responding to the scene; it’s a whole community response.”

For the Office of Emergency Management, awareness is key, just as it is for TTAM. Both organizations have published brochures and flyers, which are distributed in high-traffic areas around campus. In addition, Bartlett emphasized the Emergency Management Twitter account and Facebook page, both of which are under the name “TuftsReady.” He also encourages students to look at the Emergency Operations Plan, which includes general university response plans to various emergencies.

“[Awareness is] an ongoing conversation; it’s an ongoing communication,” Bartlett said. “We try to use social media, blog posts; when there are incidents that occur on campus that generate interest, like lots of snow, we try to use those opportunities to say that, while you are interested in emergency procedures, please also let us tell you about these resources that we have that we’d like you to be aware of.”

Kessman noted that it is TTAM’s job to evaluate the magnitude of a threat and emphasized that individuals should not hesitate to submit a report if they are concerned.

One of the things that we also say, too, is that it’s not your job to decide if you think something is threatening,” she said. 

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